Editorial: Numerical Irrelevance

On December 9, 2012 · 20 Comments

Fair warning, this article contains opinions and editorial content. You’re welcome to continue reading or come back in a couple of days when I return to the more traditional mix of geo-oddities and weird locations.

A note to myself in the Year 2050 (assuming I’m still writing 12MC, and alive, preferably both… although writing from the grave might be interesting too): "write an article about how there was once a time when people used a geographically-based numerical string to communicate over long distances."

I’ll focus on the North American Numbering Plan because I have a passing familiarity with it, although parallels could certainly be drawn to other numbering plans beyond the continent.

The first three digits are known as a "numbering plan area" or NPA. An analogous designation more familiar to the general public is "Area Code" so I’ll use that term throughout the remainder of this article. The next three digits are the NXX, or the exchange (NXX isn’t actually an acronym, it represents specific numerical characteristics).

Area code VA
Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Let’s use my beloved Commonwealth to consider the complexity that evolved over time. Virginia once had a single area code, 703. Population increases along with device accretion, particularly the rise of mobile devices, resulted in ever-increasing territorial divisions. It also necessitated bizarre "overlay" area codes when it became too difficult to keep slicing the map and making people adjust to new numbers every few years.

It doesn’t matter. It will be completely irrelevant soon enough.

The NXX portion of a telephone number, the exchange, still retains a geographic identity although it’s gone underground. It was once very visible. The Glenn Miller Orchestra popularized a composition by Jerry Gray in 1940 called PEnnsylvania 6-5000, as an example. It was the telephone number of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City. You’ll probably recognize the song even though it was released long before most of us were born (listen on YouTube). The hotel continues to exist although the number converted to the much less memorable 736-5000 generations ago.

Where am I going with this? Right. Just like nobody really cares or consideres that telephone exchanges are physical places — except perhaps from an historical or nostalgic perspective — the same will soon be true for area codes. I started noticing this probably about three to five years ago. It’s hard for me to pin down a date exactly because it’s been such a gradual movement.

Employers that wish to remain relevant recognize a need to refresh and replenish their workforces. Many of these are newly-graduating students from colleges and universities. My employer, and probably many of yours, recruits actively on university campuses. We gain a steady stream of entry-level professionals each summer who quickly blend into the group, bringing fresh perspectives and influencing new approaches. My organization has a critical mission that has to continue regardless of weather conditions or other external factors so we’ve developed multiple ways to communicate, including sharing personal telephone numbers as a contingency. That’s where I first noticed the trend as it grew.

Newer employees, all living within the Washington, DC area, had "home" phone numbers with unusual area codes. When I’d ask, since I’m a curious sort because I’m a bit of a telecom geek, they’d invariably tie it back to a mobile phone number they’d retained since high school or college. For them the area code long-ago transitioned in meaning. It became a geographic signifier of a formative point in their life (much like a Social Security Number) rather than a reflection of a current place.

They don’t have home phones. The logic: Why would anyone want a device tied to a place instead of a person? That’s no grand revelation, either. Many of us have given up our home phones. The revelation may be that we’re getting close to a tipping point where enough people will have relocated, taking their numbers with them, to effectively disassociate area code from geography.

That’s not true solely for mobile phones either. I don’t have a black plastic box with a handset and a keypad on my desk while I work. We all use Cisco IP phones that replicate the functions of traditional telephones within a computer desktop. I can work from an office, from home, from a hotel or wherever I choose and nobody calling me can tell the difference. I plug a headset into a USB port on a device loaded with the necessary software and the network finds me. We even have remote workers who telework from their homes full-time in locations all around the country and they all have "Northern Virginia" area codes served by IP phones.

Telephones are going the way of the dinosaur anyway although that’s probably a conversation for a different day. Chat, video and collaboration tools are all eating into telephone usage. My work phone rings maybe once or twice a week now and I’m a bit annoyed when it happens: "why are they calling?"

So area codes are becoming irrelevant as geographic identifiers, and telephones are becoming irrelevant as a primary means of long-distance communication. I imagine a day in the not too distant future where each of us will have a cute unique identifier that bounces off some central registry somewhere. It will allow people to communicate with us using whatever method seems most appropriate for that specific conversation (including something as quaint and antiquated as a voice call if that’s what they want). The inegrated chat/phone/video function of GMail already operate similarly although I see something more global, less proprietary. It would work much like how domain name servers operate today where it’s easier to remember twelvemilecircle.com than a big string of seemingly random numbers.

Goodbye, area code. Your (user visible) days are numbered.

On December 9, 2012 · 20 Comments

20 Responses to “Editorial: Numerical Irrelevance”

  1. Michael says:

    Your fellow Virginian, Randall Munroe, expounded on this somewhat recently:

  2. Paul Hardy says:

    You are observing a US-centric effect, caused by the North American Numbering Plan allocating all of the number space to geographic codes without the foresight of leaving space for other kinds of number. In other parts of the world that isn’t the case – e.g. in the UK, geographic areas for landlines start 01 and 02, while personal and mobile (cell) numbers start 07. The fact that you know in advance that you are calling a mobile number (a more expensive call) means that that we don’t have to pay to receive calls – all the cost is on the caller. It always seemed bizarre to me when living in the states that I had to pay for incoming mobile calls.

  3. Conor says:

    In Ireland things are a little different. Land line area codes are strictly geographic, and not portable.
    For example the area code for the Dublin region (Dublin County and slightly into surrounding counties) is 01. This is followed by three digits to identify the area within the code, although this can be a little flexible. Then four digits to finish the number.

    Mobile numbers are portable between mobile carriers only, and each of the main carriers have their own code. You can’t tell what carrier someone is using, only what carrier they first used.

    • True, although the IP phones will work around this. One could have a land line telephone number for the Dublin region and the call will automatically re-route on the network and ring literally anywhere in the world to a device properly connected to the network. The distinction will begin to lack meaning over time even in places with strict geographic interpretations and portability restrictions.

  4. Greg says:

    The wonderful webcomic xkcd has a relevant comic from just a few weeks ago: http://xkcd.com/1129/. On a different note, I’d love to know how the dividing lines between area code, um, areas are settled upon. Any wisdom about this?

  5. Back in the late seventies, you could still make phone calls in my hometown with just four digits, and those digits always began with 3. With the eighties came seven-digits dialing. Then in 1995 we were split off from the 604 area code into 250. In 2007 we were overlaid with 778. In a few months, we’re being overlaid again with 236, and then AGAIN with 672 after that. As recently as the mid-1990s I was able to memorize local exchange codes in BC the way I memorised world capitals. Those days are LOOONG gone, and it’s just as well. There are times where I go almost a month without a phone call for me on my landline.

  6. Philip Newton says:

    That reminds me of http://xkcd.com/1129/ , where the first three digits of a cell phone number are labelled “where you lived in 2005”.

  7. wangi says:

    What’s the worldwide norm: giving mobile/cell phones area codes tied to a geographic area (like the US); or an area code which associated to the network (but transferable too) like in the UK?

    For a fixed device (home phone) there is sense in geographic association. For a mobile device less so.

  8. David F-H says:

    Great article, Mr. Howder!
    There will always be a function for the telephone 20 years down the line–just like people still have to use faxes from time to time–but I agree with the sentiment: Why would they be CALLING me? Can’t they just test or IM? Or, as my students are doing in their current fad, SnapChat?
    I would like to add that Mr. Munroe of XKCD might have beat you to the punch a tiny bit here but you expounded on his simple comic:
    (Can you embed that as image for me? What if I say please?)
    Keep up the great work!

  9. OK, so apparently all I’ve proved is that I’m the only one in the 12MC Universe that doesn’t ready XKCD regularly. 😉

  10. Dave says:

    Maybe the geographic association will become the new vanity plate. I think there’s many a person in Manhattan that would flat-out refuse a 646 phone number, rather than the historic 212. I live in Houston, and didn’t want a 281 area code, because that was the “suburban” area code, before they did away with the geographic lines. I’d have been fine with 832, the newest overlay, but what I wanted (and got) was 713–the old central city code. My partner doesn’t care, and his cell phone starts with 281. I pitched an (admittedly-in-retrospect) embarrassing fit when he got that #, but he still doesn’t see why it matters.

  11. Scrub says:

    It looks like lots of people beat me to the xkcd thing. But there’s also the Simpsons–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Tale_of_Two_Springfields. Homer leads a revolt when he feels that he’s being discriminated against by the new division of area codes within Springfield. It’s a premise that’s still kind of funny in 2012 (the episode is from 2000), but it wouldn’t be recognizable as an actual problem to very many people of my generation (I’m 24). Also from the same era is the fantastic song “Area Codes” by Ludacris, which has been my ringtone for the last two years. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvrKzmkdBTI (NSFW).

  12. Peter says:

    I think there’s many a person in Manhattan that would flat-out refuse a 646 phone number, rather than the historic 212.

    There was a Seinfeld episode to that effect.

  13. Peter says:

    Businesses do have a valid reason for not wanting newly established area codes, as they fear that potential customers might consider them to be fly-by-night operations. Something of this sort was a main reason behind the opposition to Manhattan’s 212/646 overlay.

    • Dave says:

      I agree. For something like an electrician where consequences of failure would be worse than “the pizza was gross”, if I see an address up the street and a phone number like 713-862-XXXX, that tells me they’ve been there for decades. Same address but 281- or 832- (or worse, a Dallas #) and I’m suspicious.

  14. Rhodent says:

    Regarding your comment about people all over the country using Cisco IP phones with NoVa numbers: My wife’s work phone number is tied to another country. She works for an until-recently-British company (they were recently bought by an American company), and she’s the only American working in a department that is otherwise located either in Dunstable UK or Leusden NL. She works from home, and has a Dunstable phone number. Great fun when someone asks for her work number and she starts “Country Code 44…”

  15. TB says:

    I have a co-worker from Texas lamenting about how she had to get a new cellphone and lose her old Dallas area code. What she could have done though is get a Google Voice number with a Texas code for free and forward that line to her new phone.

    As far back as those frontier years of 2008, i downloaded an app that would let me text people on my iPod through the wifi. The number they assigned me always confused my friends, wondering why I was calling from North Mississippi.

    Even now on the rare occasion our home line rings, we’ll pick it up if we don’t know the caller’s number on the ID as long as it’s within our area code. “Hey, it might be Uncle Frank calling from a farmhouse he broke down in front of…”

  16. Gary says:

    Where I live in the Orlando area of Florida, our area code is 407. All of Florida was under the area code 305 when area codes first came around back in the 1950s, but population changes have made more phone numbers needed and more area codes. Our area code of 407 was made in the late 1980s. Just to the east of here on the coast (places like Titusville and Cape Canaveral) where the space industry and NASA are big in the economy, their area code is 321. The numbers 321 is of course the last three numbers said during a rocket countdown. Area code 305 is now just around the Miami area.

    Where my parents like in the Knoxville area of Tennessee, the area code around there is 865. Looking on a phone dial, the numbers 865 can be the letters VOL, which stand for the Volunteers of the University of Tennessee, the big sports team of that area. I read someplace that the Las Vegas area of Nevada wanted the area code 777, symbolizing a slot machine, but were denied since that would symbolize gambling a little too much with the lucky 7’s mentality.

    • Aaron of Minneapolis says:

      Looking at area codes, it seems none of the tripled-digit codes are used at all, except 888 (used for toll-free numbers, in the same way as 800, 877, 866, etc.). Area code 555 is reserved for directory assistance applications* but is not used in practice. I suspect the rest have been explicitly held back by the North American Numbering Plan’s administrators, which is why the denied Las Vegas’s proposed 777.

      * much like 555-XXXX numbers have been traditionally reserved for the phone company’s internal use, with directory assistance (area code + 555-1212) usually the only publicly-dialable number.

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