In the beginning there was 301.
And then, in 1992, came 410, as Maryland was divided in two. The telephone industry looked upon the new area code and said, "This is good."
Good for about five years, as it turned out.
Discarding previous predictions that two area codes would serve Maryland well into the next decade, Bell Atlantic Corp. announced yesterday that Maryland will need two new area codes by 1997.
The reason, Bell Atlantic said yesterday, is that the phone industry, flooded with requests for new numbers for cellular phones, fax machines, computer modems, pagers and other communications devices, is running out of seven-digit combinations in Maryland.
Shannon Fioravanti, a Bell Atlantic spokeswoman, said that was the conclusion reached by the Industry Carriers Compatibility Forum (ICCF), a telephone industry standards group that met in Baltimore last week to ponder the need for more area codes.
She said Bell Atlantic concurs in that judgment.
Ms. Fioravanti said that of 792 three-digit prefixes that can be issued in the 410 area code, which includes the Baltimore area and the Eastern Shore, about 500 have been fully assigned.
In the 301 area code, which covers the Washington suburbs and Western Maryland, about 400 are exhausted. Each prefix represents 10,000 phone numbers.
If current trends continue, prefixes will be exhausted at a rate of 90 to 100 a year, she said.
Thus, the ICCF has determined that Maryland will lose the numbers game if it isn't divided again to create four area codes in about two years.
The body did not adopt a specific plan for creating the new area codes but suggested two options to the state's Public Service Commission, Ms. Fioravanti said.
One plan would divide the state geographically, as was done in 1992.
The other would create an "overlay," in which new customers in each existing area code would receive a number with a new area code.
Either way, Ms. Fioravanti said, there would be a 6- to 12-month grace period during which customers could call the old area code and still get through.
Ms. Fioravanti said the ball is now in the PSC's court.
"They may ask us to go back to the drawing board and consider new options," she said.
One choice that will not be available is an area code that looks like a traditional area code.
That's because all of the area codes with a "0" or a "1" in the middle have been exhausted, Ms. Fioravanti said.
Dennis Byrne, executive vice president for technical disciplines of the United States Telephone Association, said Maryland isn't alone in facing this problem.
"It's been phenomenal. This year alone across the country we have 15 new area codes going into service," he said.
In the recent past, a typical year might bring two or three new numbers, he said.
Mr. Byrne said the shift to area codes such as Washington state's 360, has caused headaches for some businesses whose phone systems are programmed to recognize only numbers with "0s" or "1s" in the middle as area codes.
He said that by the time of the next Maryland split, the sheer number of new codes will force businesses to regularly update their systems.