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.

The Spots Not Covered

On February 23, 2010 · 3 Comments

I’ve confessed before to my fondness for an old-fashioned newspaper on a Sunday morning, and it’s doubly so when I stumble across an informative map in those ink-stained pages. A map I spied among the folds demanded my full attention, the grandiose centerpiece of a full page advertisement for a mobile phone company. They touted their near-ubiquitous 3G network coverage stretching across a major metropolitan area.

AT&T 3G Coverage in Washington DC
SOURCE: Washington Post (print edition), February 21, 2010

First, a disclaimer: I don’t have a vested interest in this, other than the map itself. I’m not promoting or disparaging a specific company. OK, let’s move along…

With this map, the provider hopes to counter the effects of negative advertising from one of their main rivals. They are aiming to convince consumers that they offer 3G service where it really matters, where the people live. It doesn’t matter so much that they have spotty coverage in out-of-the-way spaces of the continental interior.

I’m simply making an observation and I’ll let the companies and their customers duke it out. I’m only interested in the tiny holes in this area of five million people that appear as blank spots on this map. Those are places that cannot benefit from the company’s 3G service. One can only wonder what these people did to anger the cellular Gods. They have fallen through the cracks.

It was a bit difficult to translate the lack of detail on the map to exact spots on the ground, and perhaps that’s the point. The company is trying to draw attention to the coverage rather than to the places it doesn’t serve. It’s an advertisement ploy and it only needs to show a sea of red. The white splotches are superfluous. However this made the small empty voids all that more interesting to me. It felt like a challenge and I was glad to accept it. I had to find those spots.

I discovered a better source online, the company’s Coverage Viewer. It generated maps with greater granularity. The purpose of this tool isn’t advertising, it’s to provide fair notice to consumers so the greater detail makes sense. I could use the viewer to drill down into the newspaper map’s empty spots, correlate them with more detailed renderings in Google Maps, and finally identify a few unlucky residents that fell outside of the 3G coverage areas.

View Larger Map

It’s a little surprising to find that any area of affluent Great Falls, Virginia, isn’t covered. That’s not why I focused here, though. I simply thought it ironic and amusing that the company doesn’t provide 3G service on Blackberry Lane! (zoom in on the street sign and see for yourself).

View Larger Map

This resident of eastern Fauquier County is totally screwed. Imagine the day he brought his new iPhone home only to discover that not only did he not get 3G coverage, he didn’t even get voice coverage! He happens to live right in the middle of the big white splotch on the lower-center part of the newspaper map.

View Larger Map

Here’s one more spot, this time in Calvert County, Maryland. Well at least he can take some solace in living just a couple of blocks away from the lovely shores of Chesapeake Bay.

It’s possible that the map is so large and the exceptions are so small that one’s eyes are drawn to the exceptions rather than the rule. Or maybe that’s just a peculiarity to me.

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