Joe Clark: (E-mail)

You are here: Homepage > Technology > Telephones and telecommunications > Number crunch: Why phone numbers are changing

Number crunch

Why phone numbers are changing

[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:

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.