City Cast

An Interview on the 801

Terina Ria
Terina Ria
Posted on August 1
How can I connect your call? Telephone operators in Murray working the switchboards. (@murraycityculturalarts/Instagram)

How can I connect your call? Telephone operators in Murray working the switchboards. (@murraycityculturalarts/Instagram)

All this talk about 801 Day, but do you know why area codes even exist? Salt Lake Tribune reporter Andy Larsen talks us through the story behind our 801 roots and why we needed to expand (385 and 435, wya?).


What’s the story behind area codes?

“We didn't have enough numbers for everyone without them. At first, the various telephone companies used two-letter codes followed by a string of numbers to indicate which switchboard would handle the call. For example, the Salt Lake Tribune's old number was EM-31511. But as AT&T took control of the national telephone infrastructure in the 1900s, they wanted a number-based area code system that would unify dialing across the country. At first, human operators handled the area code dialing when people wanted to make a long-distance call, but eventually, that was given over to customers instead.”


How did Utah get 801?

“To differentiate from the two-letter prefix system (which doesn't assign any letters to the digits zero or one), AT&T decided that the initial area codes would have a zero or one as the second digit. Area codes with zero in the second spot were assigned to smaller states and codes with one were assigned to larger states that needed splitting. From there, AT&T assigned the lower codes to areas with more people in order to be more efficient. NYC's zip code became 212 because area codes with higher numbers take longer to dial on old rotary phones. Utah ended up with 801 thanks to its relatively small population.”

☎️ Why did Utah have to expand to more area codes?

“You would think 801 would be enough for all 3.3 million people in Utah. After all, there are 9,999,999 seven-digit numbers. But two things happened. First, number distribution was spectacularly wasteful at first. If a large business or city signed a contract with a telephone provider, they could be assigned all 10,000 numbers for a given prefix; say, from 801-777-0001 to 801-777-9999, regardless if they needed 2,000 numbers or 8,000. It wasn't until 2002 that this practice ended. Now they're assigned in blocks of 1,000 numbers. Second, in the early 90s, increased numbers of fax machines and pagers made the earlier wastefulness a problem. The 801/435 split occurred in 1997. Today, we only use less than 70% of 801 numbers. Boo.”

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