Joe Clark: joeclark.org (E-mail)
[Originally published 1995 |
Updated here 1999.07.04]
Telephone systems worldwide are running short of something that may not seem like a resource at all, much less a finite one: Telephone numbers.
Within a given scheme of area codes and local phone numbers, only so many combinations are available. The proliferation of fax machines, cellphones, direct-dial business lines, and pagers has forced many states and provinces, and some entire nations, to revamp their telephone-numbering schemes to provide more capacity.
Doing so is not without cost-- in reprogramming telephone-company equipment, first of all, but also in updating corporations' private-branch exchanges and auto-dialing fax machines and telephones.
Moreover, millions of telephone users must reprogram themselves, often unlearning some of the dialing habits they've known for generations. Ironically, while phone numbers themselves have limits, so do the means of freeing up phone numbers. Some approaches make more sense than others in specific cases, and most involve tradeoffs. These approaches include:
Splitting or overlaying the area code. A favourite in North America, splitting subdivides an existing geographical region into two subregions, each with its own area code (as New York's 212 to 212/718 or Toronto's 416 to 416/905). Drawing borders, however, draws criticism as well, and to avoid consumer outrage, U.S. telephone companies are increasingly turning to area-code overlays rather than splits: A new and an old area code share exactly the same space.
[Additional details, from LincMad: "The overlay of Manhattan has been postponed several times. The original plan called for area code 646 to be overlaid on 212 in April 1998, but with 7-digit dialing continuing for calls with the same area code. However, that plan violates FCC regulations requiring 10-digit dialing on all local calls in an overlay region.... The NY-PSC applied for a waiver, which was denied but is again under review. The overlay will take effect officially on July 1, 1999, although in practice the first numbers in 646 will not be active until July 9, 1999. The overlay of 718 with 347 is scheduled for October 1, 1999. At this time, 7-digit dialing will be allowed to continue for calls to the same area code, although the FCC is still indicating that 1+10D will be required not later than April 15, 2000, for both the 212/646 and 718/347 areas."]
Such an approach will come into force in western Los Angeles in 1996, when the existing 310 area code (itself a split from 213) will be joined by the new code 562, both of which will be active and will cover the same area. It will then be possible for adjacent apartments within a building to have phone numbers in different area codes (though dialing from one to the other will not incur a long-distance toll), a fact that is apt to boggle minds for years.
[Update: After lawsuits and outcry, 562 became an area-code split, which strikes me as conceptually easier than an overlay but much more onerous pragmatically given that roughly half the area in question has to reprogram its phones, reprint letterheads, and the like. And, in 1998, 213 was split again into 213/323, which are similar enough to be confused. See detailed descriptive history of area-code changes.]
Altering the area-code format. In Britain, most regonal area codes have been prefaced by the digit 1 in the last year. The new digit, with rare exceptions, indicates that a number is a "landline" (a conventional phone connected by wires); for example, London's 071 and 081 (themselves split from 01 years ago) are now 0171 and 0181. The new 01XXX format for such numbers matches similar existing codes denoting mobile phones (04XX) and services that incur a special toll (e.g., 0800 numbers are toll-free, but other 08XX combinations, like 0898 phone-sex lines, cost a premium).
Meanwhile, in North America, the decades-old requirement that area codes have 0 or 1 as middle digit is now kaput. Telephone switches are intelligent enough not to require that kind of standardization anymore, and besides, every possible area code in that format has been assigned. (One of the last, 910, was taken by North Carolina in what could be the most confusing area-code split: The new 910 code borders on the existing 919 area, a numerical similarity that invites dialing slipups.) Now new area codes do not need a middle 0 or 1, producing Los Angeles' 562 and Alabama's 334. Canada is not immune: British Columbia's proposed new area code, 250, is scheduled to come into full force in 1997, and the Yukon and Northwest Territories and Nunavut get their own area code, 867.
But doesn't this cause confusion? After all, area codes have contained a 0/1 middle digit since the 1940s. Bill Todd at South Central Bell in Birmingham, Alabama, responds that his firm did no research on people's opinions-- "and that's not our business. Our business is to run our part of the telephone network. And in so doing, 334 is as good a combination as any as far as we're concerned and [we] would have no comment on its degree of confusion or understanding."
Linda Bonniksen, a Pacific Bell spokesperson, anticipates that nine different area codes will be in service in greater Los Angeles by the year 2000. Bonniksen herself lives in 714 and works in 213; her husband works in 310, but his cellphone is in 213, while her cellphone and pager are in 714. Says Bonniksen matter-of-factly, "That's what life is like in Los Angeles."
Lengthening the local number. This option causes the greatest disruption in that every telephone number must change (though usually in a predictable pattern). Still, it's the best choice for countries where phone-number growth occurs unevenly. In Australia, densely-populated states like New South Wales have a stronger hunger for numbers than sparsely-populated areas like Western Australia. Accordingly, Australia's five- to seven-digit numbers will all have eight digits by 1998; at the same time, area codes will be amalgamated and standardized at two digits (at present, they vary from two digits in cities to three or four digits in rural areas). (See North American analysis.)
But even those approaches don't end the confusion, since special dialing sequences also can change. The combinations used in TV and movies as dummy numbers-- those beginning with 555-- do not actually exist (except for 555-1212, the directory-assistance number for all area codes); that may change in the next few years, and the new 555 numbers may become de facto toll-free numbers with national or continental scope. Even the North American 800 toll-free exchange-- so ingrained in consumer minds that it spread to England (0800) and Australia (where 008 was changed to 1800)-- is running short of combinations, to be overlaid with the new code 888 (and, later, 877; coming soon, 866).
Aside on number portability: Imagine never having to change your telephone number again. Convenient? Mais oui. Orwellian? Somewhat. Then again, telephone numbers are Orwellian. Caller ID identifies you to whoever you are calling. Cellphones, when activated, track your location, as O.J. Simpson knows all too well. So the concept of an unchanging telephone number is not such an ethical leap, at least for an industry and its attendant regulators who permit any and all technological advances without due concern for user safety.