Phone Numbers

This is part of a series of general comments I plan to write about the current phone network. I want feedback in order to turn this into a message that can be understand by the local telephone regulators who seem to tolerant extreme nonsense such as idiosyncratic dialing rules. For those who prefer a more scenario-based approach to this subject, see Why Jane can't learn her phone number below.


The Problem with Phone Numbers
Simple Suggestion
Universal Dialing
Why Jane can't learn her phone number

The Problem with Phone Numbers

The issue of phone numbers is very simple yet very frustrating. The bottom line is that I can't just use a phone number. In order to place a call from one phone to another, I must know:

  • The phone number itself. Perhaps it is +1-999-999-9999.
  • Translate the phone number into a local dial string. This is typically done by replacing the initial portion of the phone number with the local code for reaching the larger network. It may also involve removing leading digits.
  • Idiosyncrasies of the local system I'm on. A PBX may require special prefixes to reach the outside world
  • Billing requirements and specifications.

Once I've done this I can dial the call. But if something goes wrong, I must listen for the proper messages as a human -- I can't automate the process.

In the old days when humans did all the dialing, one could deal with these idiosyncrasies. But with more and more devices doing their own dialing and doing so from multiple locations, we need to address this unnecessary cumbersomeness.

There is also a safety issue. One can't simply dial a phone number in an emergency or, more to the point, have children do it. I currently live in an area that is within a few miles of four different area codes. How does one explain all the rules to a child. Especially when the boundaries between the cities are indistinct. One can visit a number and carry a cordless phone. But two cordless phones side by side must dial different numbers between one is often not allowed to dial the local area code!

My ATT PCS phone is particularly perverse. I can usually put in the 11 digit number. But sometimes I get a message saying I must only dial the 7 digit version. If I have the 10 digit number stored it will often work but some systems insist on the one. Internationally things become worse. But, for example, the Nokia 6110 allows me to use a + to mean that I want an international number. That should be a great solution but if I try it on the US version (the 6160, for example), I'm told I have no number. This is ridiculous. It doesn't take more than a millisecond of thinking to realize that one should have a single phone number representation that works everywhere. Even more absurd is that with the ATT PCS phone, it will randomly choose a locally system and the rules can change within a few feet so that the number stored in the directory on the phone will fail basically randomly! And this is what was the phone company.

Simple Suggestion

Just allow 11 digit dialing everywhere though we can tolerate 7 digit and other abbreviated dialing as long as there is no conflict.

Support standard dialing. In the United States, allow 11 digit dialing to be used everywhere. This is trivial and obvious. I'm simply puzzled about why we tolerate being forced to not dial the area code. There is also the silly idea of ten digit dialing where one must not dial the leading

No Splits?

A related implication is that we should do away with area code splits. The problem with a split is not the stationery or printing new business cards but the phone numbers embedded everywhere from computers to faxes to memory phones to vending machines. The latter is particular difficult because one must reprogram all the autonomous devices throughout the country to call the new numbers. Living in the 617/781/978/508 nexus such splits are painfully obvious in software for online services that have many dialing tables that are obsolete. Many PC's are shipping with old tables. Manuals have obsolete support numbers. And on and on.

The downside of the overlay is that those with the original area code have an advantage in the sense that they have the more familiar number. It also means 11 digit dialing within a household.

Manhattan is going to do such an overlay. We'll see how well it works.


This solution still doesn't address the plight of the mobile user who must remember a different "access" number for each location. It would be nice to have a single "800" number but that is very expensive since the local call is typically unmeasured (as it should be).

But there is a solution. Use the 800 number to dial into a service on the network that uses the SS7 switching system to place the call as a local call. There would be a modest charge for the initial setup connection and then local charges would apply. This is primarily aimed at computers that must dial numbers automatically. They also need to standardize how they specify billing information, they can't listen for the explanation of how to provide the information in a specific situation.

This approach is actually patented. Patent 5694457 was awarded to Toby Nixon and myself.

Universal Dialing

This is probably asking to much but it would be nice to have a prefix equivalent to the "+". The "+" is followed by the country code. By useful coincidence, the North America country code is "1". The "1" historically meant a "toll call", one that cost money because of the accidental property that the "1" was used to transfer the call to the regional switching office. This came to be called a toll office. The problem with these accidental properties is that one can't separate the policies from the mechanism. While it was reasonable to take advantage of the ambiguity in the meaning of the "1", we should simply think of it as the country code for now. "011" is the way to dial the + now, but it requires proper timing and "011-1" is not supported for domestic calls. We should allocate one of the unused codes in the forth column on the phone dial. Yes, these are defined and called A, B, C and D. We can use "A" to mean universal dialing. Perhaps even label it "+".

PBXes a problematic since one must dial a prefix (typically 9) to get an outside line. This does make for convenient dialing of internal calls. It would be hard to change this over immediately, but it can be a long term goal. Automatic dialers, such as computers, could test for it and then revert to traditional dialing.

Why Jane can't learn her phone number

I wrote this as an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe. As far as a I know, it was never printed. If you still think it needs to be printed, please tell me..

The latest split in area codes in Massachusetts also highlights a problematic<> legacy of the past. Phone numbers are very simple in the United States (and the rest of North America). The number has a fixed length: a 3 digit area code and a 7 digit local number. The actual number is 11 digits long because we generally prefix the area code with a "1". There are various historic code. The "1" also happens to be the country code for North America. So a number like 1-617-555-5555 can easily be dialed from anywhere in the world.

Anywhere, except where I live. Because I am not allowed to dial the "1-617" for local calls. This seems to be simple enough except that I don't dial many of my calls. It is likely to be dialed using the speed dial button on a phone, or by a computer or an alarm. Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad if these devices never moved and the dialing rules never changed. But they do. This means that any time I move a device, such as a portable computer, I need to teach it the new rules.

It also means that I can't just read a phone number and dial it. I must be very aware of where I am. If I am at a friend's house and need to call home, I must know where I am and the local rules.

This is bad enough. But we also have a legacy called a "Toll Prefix". A long long time ago, before area codes, the "1" was used to mean that the call was not a local call. While the original reason was to get around limitations in the design of the early phone system, some people got used to thinking of the "1" as meaning that the call was an expensive "Toll Call" (like a toll highway). With newer technology this has become a legacy that serves only to confuse. Deregulation and changing tariffs makes this even more obvious.

Now we have a new menace �the 10 digit call. It is understandable that, as with the one, the need for an area code is associated with an expensive call even though many such calls have no charge at all because they are between nearby towns. But doing so by eliminating the 1 on some calls to other area codes and requiring in others is simply confusing.

Perhaps I can accept the omission of the "1" if it were optional. But the proposed plan is punitive, I will not be allowed to dial the "1". I am forced to think about more than just the call. I must know where I am, and where I am calling and the complex rules for calls between the two points. Do I need an area code? Must I not dial a one?

And then I must teach this to every device I use. And if I carry my computer home, I need to change the rules. If I take it to a meeting, I must ask about all the rules for that room for each of the places I am calling.

If I teach my 6 year old his phone number, do I need to teach him a different number for each friend he may visit. For each field trip?

What is most remarkable is that there is no reason for any of this. It takes extra effort to make this things complicated. Left to their own, the phone equipment can just let me dial the 11 digit number wherever I am. (Yes, you will still be allowed to dial 7 digit numbers).

So let's keep things simple and safe. The DPU should permit the phone companies to allow me to dial my phone number wherever I am. Let me (or my compute) dial the 11 digits?

If someone can give me a reason why I must be forced to learn all these complicated and arbitrary dialing rules, send me mail at Otherwise, I will continue to be puzzled about how one can take a simple idea �the phone number �and make it so complicated.

More Problems

I keep running into new experiences that demonstrate problems and the lack of a protocol:

Rape hot line callers given bad referral


People who dial a toll-free number for the Rape Education and Crisis Hotline are being referred to a pay-per-call sexual fantasy talk line for men because the phone number was reassigned.

In what a telephone company official called a "terrible coincidence, the old number for the rape crisis hot line was reassigned in October to a company called Intimate Encounters. To make matters worse, the Verizon 2001 phone book lists the old number for the Rape Education and Crisis Hotline.

Until the next phone book comes out, the only recourse for the Rape Education and Crisis Hotline is to ask the company that owns the fantasy talk line to abandon the 800 number.

A spokesman for the company's service provider said it was unlikely the company would give up the number because it has probably spent money on advertising.

  • As the story to the right illustrates, now that phone numbers are identifiers and not a path through the relays in a phone switch, the whole idea of reusing phone numbers no longer makes sense.
  • In Europe, I can place + in front of a phone number in a cellular phone to indicate that the phone number starts with country code. It works in the Nokia 6110 but not in the US version, the 6160. Why?
  • When I get a call on the 6160, in Boston, it is a 10 digit number without the 1. I have to edit the 1 in so that the number will work in other cell systems.
  • I've had the experience of using an 11 digit number on my cell phone and then getting the Bell-Atlantic message saying that I must only dial seven digits!
  • 1-617-901 cannot be dialed in 617. But it does work at 1-617-901. At least from those systems that now allow 11 digit local dialing. It is probably not dialable elsewhere. If I do dial 901, the error signal comes as soon as I finish dialing the exchange number.