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10-digit dialing comes soon

River Falls and the northern half of the state will be the first Wisconsinites to start using a new area-code phone procedure. Called an "overlay," it involves adding a second area code to a region now assigned the prefix 715. The additional will be 534.

According to Wisconsin Public Service Commission spokeswoman Teresa Smith, the overlay starts at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, July 17. Smith says there are a few key points:

  • For local 7-digit phone calls, you'll have to remember to dial 715 to have your calls go through. Update any preprogrammed 7-digit phone numbers for your wireless phone, as well as any text or e-mail alert services, call-forward settings, voice mail, even alarm and security systems.
  • Sometime later this summer, new phone lines in the 715 area code region will be assigned the 534 area code. Like the 715 prefix, the 534 prefix will have be needed to complete local 7-digit calls.
  • There is no extra cost for dialing the 715 (or 534) local calls. However, 715 long-distance calls will continue as before and a "1" will still have to be dialed first.

"The overlay is not a new concept, but a trend that other states are following," Smith said. "It's either do an overlay or split a region in half and reassign another area code.

"It's always hard to decide which one to do, but the split is more expensive for businesses and people because they have to change their business cards, letterheads, websites, anything that lists their phone numbers. Phone providers also have to go through reassigning and redistributing area code numbers.

"You don't have that with the overlay. You won't have your number changed, but you will have to punch in three more digits when making those local calls."

The 715 area code is the largest geographic region in Wisconsin, but it has the smallest population. However, there's been enough growth to nearly exhaust all possible 715 prefix/7-digit combinations.

If you're wondering how many combinations that is, Smith said it's 7,750,000.

She adds that the rest of Wisconsin will soon be following the area code overlay system.

Next will be the 920 area code for the state's central east region, including Green Bay, in 2012. The 608 area code, including La Crosse and Madison, is set to change in 2017.

The state's other area codes are 414 (Milwaukee) and 262, (Racine and Kenosha).

Smith said the proliferation of cell phones and fax machines have accelerated the speed at which area codes are used up.

"There are many households now that have five or six phones in use," she said. "That's different from many years ago when each home had one land-line phone using up one area code."

For those who forget to dial 715 on local calls starting July 17, a recorded message will remind them that the call can't be completed until the area code is dialed.

With the addition of the 534 area code later this summer, people may soon find that a neighbor living across the street has a different area code.