A thirst for numbers

When I first started working in the telecom industry, I was in a group that included “Dial Admin” – the administration of phone numbers.

We would maintain the inventory of phone numbers and provide the business office with lists of phone numbers that could be assigned to new customers. We would try to assign numbers somewhat randomly in order to balance the load on the terminating portion of the electro-mechanical switching equipment. In those days (1979-80), digital switching was just being launched. We had a lot of late-60’s era electronic “stored-program” switching, some 50’s era cross-bar and a lot of old step-by-step equipment.

Step-by-step allowed short-cuts and strange dialing logic. For example, before it was replaced by digital switching, the London Clarence Street step was one of the largest in Canada, with the 519-43x phone numbers (432, 433, 434, 438 and 439). Some people¬†referred¬†to their numbers with the prefix “GEneral”, since G-E represents “43” on the dial. The switch was configured to basically ignore the initial 4 allowing people to either skip that digit, or dial it repeatedly. And when I say dial, remember that step-by-step did not recognize tone dialing. So it was real rotary dialing. The digit 3 would unlock the logic and then the next digit would start routing the call as the rest of the digits were dialed.

That was a big switch, with close to 50,000 numbers being served.

We had small step switches in a number of remote communities that could fit in cans mounted on phone poles. In some of these places, people had 2-digit phone numbers. Can you imagine their reaction when the phone company came around with a digital upgrade that brought tone dialing, voice mail, caller ID and 7-digit phone numbers. A lot of people didn’t think the transition from a two-digit phone number was worth it. But that was the price of progress.

All this is background to my initial reaction to a news release this morning that two more area codes are being added to the Greater Toronto Area, bringing us to a total of 3 area codes (24,000,000 numbers) to serve the City of Toronto and another 24,000,000 numbers to serve the surrounding environs. The 437 area code will be added to the 416/647 area codes; the 365 area code will be added in the 905/289 region.

These two new codes bring Ontario’s total to 13, which yields 104 million phone numbers. What is driving this? According to the press release, “Increasing demand for telephone numbers, particularly for wireless devices, has created the need for additional numbers to serve customers in these regions.”

Our household has 12 numbers serving 8 people: including 7 mobile device numbers. Two of those numbers are for a distinctive ringing feature that came with my line, but I have no clue what the actual numbers are.

I understand the fact that we have moved from an era of phone numbers being assigned to places (your home number shared by the household versus your office number), into an era of one or more phone numbers being assigned to a person.

But I wonder if we really need 10 numbers per person.

Do data devices need a dial-able phone number? How many numbers are being consumed by our implementation of number portability. With 6 different area codes soon to be in play, do most people in the Toronto area know when they are making a long distance call?

Trying to remember 10-digit phone numbers is eased somewhat by the prevalence of mobile phone books, but there are real issues for those Canadians who don’t have access to mobile phones. To what extent are human factors being considered in the continuing expansion of our number space?

1 thought on “A thirst for numbers”

  1. “I wonder if we really need 10 numbers per person.”

    This sounds a bit like the (apparently apocryphal) story of Bill Gates saying that 640K of computer memory should be enough for anybody. If the people responsible for allocating area codes are saying that the demand is there, I’m willing to accept that this is so. Especially in the face of absolutely no obvious downside to the allocation of the area codes.

    The only objection you seem to raise is the ‘human factors’ of having to remember the 10-digit numbers, to which I would make two points:

    First, people don’t have to remember “416” as three digits. Right now they need only recall that it is either 416 or 647. Throw in two more and you’re still only having to select between 4 possible area codes. It’s not really 3 discrete digits that have to be recalled. And the people who live in the affected areas have already made the transition from 7-digit to 10-digit dialing, so this it not a new human factor.

    Second, I think the only people who would be adversely affected by this are people who direct dial numbers from memory. There are many people who do this, but it is nearly impossible now (and has been for some time) to acquire telephone equipment without any kind of “addressbook” function. Meaning almost every use case for dialing a telephone now falls into “I would have had to look it up anyway” or “it’s in the phone so I don’t need to memorize it.”

    Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone. There are still the modern-day equivalents of the 2-digit customers you refer to above. But as a wise man once said: “A lot of people didn‚Äôt think the transition from a two-digit phone number was worth it. But that was the price of progress.”


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