The need for a change reflects the very large number of players in the U.S. wireless device market.

We’ve been hearing for years about the growth of wireless technologies into every facet of our lives. Now we have proof, of a sort.

Every U.S. consumer product that contains a radio transmitter – a universe that includes car keys, Wi-Fi tablets, Bluetooth earpieces, cell phones, baby monitors, and much more – must be labeled with an “FCC ID,” a string of usually random-looking letters and numerals. This signifies the device has been certified as complying with FCC technical standards. The same certification is also required for most non-consumer radio-based devices that are mobile, portable, or unlicensed. (You can find the FCC ID on the underside of a wireless mouse or laptop, the lower back of an iPad or iPhone, or under the battery of an Android phone. Once you have it, you can pull up a lot of technical information at this web page.)

The FCC ID has two parts. The first three characters, called the “grantee code,” identify the company that obtained FCC certification, usually the manufacturer. Current grantee codes must start with a letter. Apple, for example, has code BCG; Microsoft has C3K. There are over 33,000 possible combinations. The rest of the characters, up to 14 of them, are chosen by the company, usually to denote a particular model of device.

The FCC is running out of grantee codes.

That is, in the near future, the number of companies holding FCC certifications will overtake the possible three-character combinations. Some of the previously issued codes, to be sure, went to companies that are no longer in business; the numbering system goes back to 1979. And until 1996, personal computers and peripheral devices had to be certified, which ate up additional codes. Still, on the whole, we think the coming exhaustion of codes speaks to the enormous success of the wireless-device industry in the United States.

But enough of the past. Going forward, the FCC will need more codes. The solution? New applicants will soon receive five-character codes. Each will begin with a numeral, to distinguish these from the old, three-character codes. (Zeros and ones will not be used.) The number of possible new codes, says the FCC, is over 8 million. At the current rate of assignment, approximately 1,000 codes per year, the FCC should be in good shape through the year 10,000 A.D. Not taking any chances, though, the FCC will no longer specify the length of the code in the rules, so it can expand beyond the upcoming five characters without the formalities of a rule amendment.

Holders of the current three-character codes can continue to use them indefinitely, and indeed, must use them when applying for new certifications.

The new system will take effect without the usual notice and comment, 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. We will let you know when that happens.