Phone with 839 area code

The Midlands will have a new area code, 839, in late 2020. Andy Shain/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina is about to add a fifth area code.

The latest set of digits will augment the Palmetto State’s oldest area code — 803. In the region stretching from Aiken to Rock Hill with Columbia at its center, new numbers beginning with 839 will be available starting May 26, 2020.

Historically, the 803 area code was the only one in the state after World War II ended. In 1995, 864 came to the Upstate. The coastal 843 area code was created in the late 1990s.

Ahead of the new number's availability in the Midlands, millions of landline callers are asked to practice dialing the area code before every local number. Calls dialed without area codes will stop going through April 25, 2020.

The advent of cell phones and years of heavy population growth have contributed to the need for a new area code in the Midlands.

As of December 2017, there were 4.75 million mobile numbers in service statewide and 1.6 million wired lines, said Doug Pratt, public utility analyst with the S.C. Public Service Commission. Population in the state recently topped 5 million, according to the latest Census data.

"The thing that determines when you have to split, or overlay, an area code is when you run out of central office codes," the first three digits following the area code, Pratt said.

That’s not to say 803 numbers will no longer be given out.

In 2015, for example, when the first new area code in 20 years was added to coastal areas from Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head, forecasters at the North American Numbering Plan Administrator, which plans phone numbers across the nation, overestimated expected phone number needs.

At that time, the Charleston metro area was gaining 50 new residents every day. But more than a year after the area added its 854 code, there were still several hundred thousand 843 numbers available.

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Regulators considered merging the 854 area with the Midlands but ultimately decided adding 839 numbers to serve central South Carolina would last longer and cause less confusion.

When the last new area code was introduced, there was a rush to snag tens of thousands of prime, easy-to-remember phone prefixes. 

But for the most part, Pratt said the new numbers are given out when a customer's needs are too big to be accommodated under the previous area code — usually new large employers and hospitals with direct dialing systems that want a common number.

The S.C. Public Service Commission approved the plan to add the new area code in July 2018.

Despite population gains in the Upstate, it is the only new one currently planned, Pratt said.

Through mid-2018, the Spartanburg metropolitan area was the 19th fastest-growing in the nation. And Greenville County's population growth rate was higher than the state's as a whole, according to the latest Census figures.

“The 864 area code will not exhaust for quite some time," Pratt said, some 10 to 15 years into the future.

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.