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Manhattan’s iconic 212 area code up for grabs

New York City’s iconic 212 area code, name-checked in songs and on TV shows such as "Seinfeld," is losing some of its exclusivity.

On Thursday, the Federal Communication Commission gave voice-over-Internet-protocol providers like Vonage direct access to unused numbers — including ones in the vaunted 212 area code — as part of a six-month trial the agency is conducting while it solicits comments on a broader proposal to give VoIP companies more direct access to phone numbers.

According to an FCC report, roughly 21 percent of the numbers in the 212 area code were available as of June 2010 — making it one of the least-available area codes in the country.

Of course, the proliferation of mobile phones has made area codes moot as a mark of geographical identity for years now. The FCC said it also is studying the “long-term relationship of numbers to geographic boundaries.

“The tie between area codes and geographic regions has been weakened by number portability, especially as mobile subscribers move away from the area where they obtained the service but continue using the number,” the agency said.

Still, the 212 area code has an outsized reputation. In a 1998 episode of "Seinfeld," Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Elaine is rejected by a man after she gives him a phone number with the 646 area code.

On the show, Elaine hatched a plan to steal a 212 number. Today, she could have just bought one. There is already a secondary market of 212 numbers, with eBay listings of 212 SIM cards and websites selling 212 digits. Prices start at less than $100, but some climb into four-figure territory.

Paying thousands of dollars for a phone number might seem crazy, but some people say a 212 number is a valuable career aid because it implicitly suggests that the owner is a New York City professional.

“It’s a status thing,” said Alex Sarian, director of finance and new business at the Lincoln Center Institute.

When he was freelancing a few years ago, Sarian said his 212 number was his biggest marketing asset. “I feel like people take you more seriously because people have this expectation of what 212 is,” he said. “I feel like people gravitate to that.”

“People identity with the area code because it represents a high-status, distinctive geographic area,” Jay Van Bavel, assistant professor of psychology at New York University, said via email. “There is extensive research showing that many indicators of status or wealth change our perceptions of people. I wouldn't be surprised if the 212 area code confers some sort of status on people from the area.”

Van Bavel said wider distribution of 212 numbers is likely to erode the area code’s status, though. “I think it will devalue the area code because it will lose its distinctiveness,” he said.