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“What’s your phone number?”
It seems like an innocuous question. But what are you expecting? Phone numbers in the US can vary in length greatly depending up on where you live. I grew up in a small town. My first telephone line was a party line. Because there were four families on the same line, phone numbers didn’t mean much beyond getting you to the general location. When we moved into town we finally got our own telephone line. But the number was only four digits, like a PBX extension. Since all phones in two had the same prefix, all calls were switched via the last four digits. The day finally came when we all had to dial the prefix along with the four-digit number. Now were were up to seven.
If you ask someone their phone number, you’re likely to get any one of several number combinations. Seven digits, ten digits, or even eleven digits for those that do international business. Computer systems can be coded to automatically fill in the area code for small stores that need contact information. Other nationwide chains ask for the area code every time. And those international business people always start their number with “+1”, which may not even be an option on the system. How do we standardize?
Cracking The Code
Part of our standardization issues come from the area codes we’ve been using for sixty years. Originally conceived as a way to regionalize telephone exchanges, area codes have become something of a quandary. In larger cities, we use 10-digit phone dialing because of overlay area codes. Rather than using one code for all the users in a given area, the dial plan has grown so large that more codes were needed to serve the population. In order to insure these codes are used correctly you must dial all ten digits of the phone number.
In smaller locations still served by one area code, the need for 10-digit dialing is less clear. In my home area code of 405, I don’t need to dial ten digits to reach the Oklahoma City metro area. If I want to dial outside of my area code, I need to use the long distance prefix. However, there are some areas in the 405 area code that are not long distance but require dialing 405. These are technically Inter-LATA Intrastate long distance calls. And the confusion over the area codes comes down to the long distance question.
Going the Distance
The long distance system in America is the cause of all the area code confusion. Users universally assume that they need to dial a 1 before any number to cross area codes. That is true in places where a given area code covers all users. But users also need to dial the long distance code to access users on different phone systems and in different towns. It’s difficult to remember the rules. And when you dial a 1 and it’s not needed, you get the reorder tone from your telco provider.
Now add mobile phones into the equation. My friend from college still has the same mobile number he had ten years ago in this area code. He lives in Seattle now. If I want to call and talk to him, it’s a local call on my home phone. If his next door neighbor wants to call him it will be a long distance call. Many people still have their first mobile number even though they have moved to area codes across the country.
Mobile phone providers don’t care about long distance calls. A call to a phone next to you is no different than a call to a phone in Alaska. This reinforces the importance on 10-digit dialing. I give my mobile number as ten digits all the time, unless I give the 11-digit E.164 globalized E.164 number. It’s quick and easy and people in large areas are used to it.
It’s time to do the same for landline phones. I think the utility for landlines would increase immensely if long distance was no longer an issue. If you force all users to dial ten digits they won’t mind so long as the calls can be routed anywhere in any area code. When you consider that most phone providers give users free long distance plans or even service for just a few cents, holding on to the idea of long distance calls makes little to no sense.
As a former voice engineer, long distance always gave me fits. People wanted to track long distance calls to assign charges, even when they had hundreds of minutes of free long distance. The need to enter a long distance access code rendered my Cisco Cius unusable. I longed for the day that long distance was abolished.
Now, local phone companies see users evaporating before their very eyes. No one uses their home phone any more. I know I never answer mine, since most of the calls are from people I don’t want to talk to. I think the last actual call I made was to my mother, which just happened to be long distance.
If telcos want users to use landlines, they should abolish the idea of long distance and make the system work like a mobile phone. Calling my neighbor with a 212 area code would just require a 10-digit call. No long distance. No crazy rules. Just a simple phone call. People would start giving 10-digit numbers. Billing would be simplified. The world would be a better place.