Phone Numbers

Phone numbers are funny things.

Not too long ago, everybody had a land line that was tied to their geography.  It had an area code, which nailed down the region they were calling from, and the next three digits specified a “local calling area” even more precisely.

Enter the cell phone.  At Harvey Mudd College, folks had all kinds of area codes, and it was no big deal.  Certainly many people had the local 909 area code because they got a cell phone for the first time (or switched service providers, or something) after arriving at college.  But my classmates were just as likely to have a 626 as a 509 or a 420.

Now that I’m living in San Diego, renting an apartment, and am somehow one step closer to whatever is meant by “the real world,” it’s somehow expected that I’ll have the local 619 area code (or the more newfangled 858).  When I order takeout and begin my phone number with “area code 5-0-9…,” they interrupt me and ask if I meant to be calling a restaurant in San Diego.  Yes, indeed.

Here’s what I don’t understand.  With so many people moving and traveling and not having landlines, why do area codes still matter?  Most cell phone plans have free nationwide long distance.  But “long distance” itself is defined by an area code.  When phones are mobile, all bets are off.  However, what mobile phone companies don’t support is the ability to port a phone number across imaginary geographic lines.

I think it’s great that the FCC requires wireless providers to “port” phone numbers between carriers for free.  But if you read the fine print, it’s only allowed within the same geographic area:

Q: Can I keep my phone number if I move to another city?
A: No, not unless you are moving within the same local geographic area where the phone number is currently assigned. Even within the same telephone area code, you may be outside the boundaries of the local calling area that determines if your cell phone number is portable.

I only manage to escape this by being on my Dad’s family plan with Sprint, and he pays the bills back in the lovely state of Washington.  (Thanks, Dad.)

Still, it’s a ridiculous restriction.  Phone numbers should be like email addresses – you don’t have to change them regardless of where your “permanent address” is.  Because it’s a royal pain to update contact information with anybody who might try to reach you, ever.

The small bit of research I’ve done on the matter seems to indicate that VoIP – that is, Voice over Internet Protocol – home phone services don’t have this particular restriction.  There are even some VoIP-based applications (Yeigo, truphone, Skype Lite, etc.) that work on snazzier mobile phones and claim to charge a fraction of what mobile providers do for text messages and international calls.  But a natively VoIP-operated cell phone with a number that never changes and works around the world?  Dream on.  I suppose that may be why they invented the internet.

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4 thoughts on “Phone Numbers

  1. “Because it’s a royal pain to update contact information with anybody who might try to reach you, ever.”

    I heartily agree. I don’t know what cell phone number policy is like in Europe, but I’d be shocked if it’s as ridiculous as here. The tragic thing is that the cell companies have all been duping Americans with their absurd policies and money-grubbing scams for so long that we just accept it as normal.

  2. that’s because there are only so many numbers — take prefix 628. If there’s no “509” in front, it can also apply to a region in Pennsylvania! Because of the ways phones work here, we need that. In Europe and other countries they have country codes and other deals — we have to have a longer number.

    • Well yes, obviously there aren’t enough unique phone numbers if everyone has only 7 digits. But arbitrarily deciding that the first 3 digits of a 10 digit phone number must correlate to your geographic location? That’s nuts.
      You raise an interesting points with country codes, however. In the US, it’s simply “1” so we ignore it all the time. But in Russia it’s “+7” and the phones actually have a little + button, only sometimes it’s OK to dial 8 instead of +7. (Doesn’t make any sense to me either.) I guess at some point with our current system a phone number has to be tied to geography, but I’d rather it was only on a country-wide basis (where you’re going to have differing standards for cell phone usage and providers anyway) than on an “I’m in this specific part of Los Angeles” basis. Kind of like the internet is typically .com in the US, but .co.uk in the UK, and .ru in Russia, etc. Something like that is sensible enough.

      • At some point the internet is going to stop having .com’s, and let you have an arbitrary sequence of letters after the decimal point (I don’t think it’s actually a decimal point, but I can’t figure out what else to call it).

        There have already been several proposals to (Congress? Maybe?) whichever committee regulates that sort of thing. So far they’ve all gotten shot down, though. Which is good.

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