Here Comes Trouble: Telephone Number Tyranny

The Internet domain name system emerged as an overlay of meaningless IP addresses 25 years ago, and yet the wait for a mechanism that would reduce the need to keep track of meaningless telephone numbers continues. Sure, the conversion to automated switching saved the telephone company from employing operators, but it shifted the burden of switching to the public. And as Edward Tuck explained in a 1996 IEEE Symposium speech, the creation of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) did not necessarily improve telephone service:

Telephone service I had in 1984 was in most ways worse than the service I got when I was a little boy in the South in the 1930s. Then, I’d pick up the receiver, and the lady would say, “Number, please,” and I’d say, “I want my Mommy!” She might say, “Well, Skippy, she was over at Miz Ferguson’s, but she left there and now she’s at Miz Furrey’s. Somebody’s using the phone there right now, but I’ll break in and tell them you need your Mama.” We had call waiting, call forwarding, executive override and voice recognition. I didn’t even have to dial. Things went straight downhill from there.

Telephone companies continue to add annoyances, requiring the “1” for long distance, requiring area codes for local calls, and changing area codes to accommodate growth. In the case of caller ID, the telcos have the temerity to charge extra for the inadequacy of their services. ISPs certainly don’t enjoy a similar revenue stream for revealing the identity of the person sending email. Did anyone notice the Internet survives without directory assistance charging $1.50 to help people find URLs? Telephone companies charge for the privilege of an unlisted number, or for opting out of directory assistance. While on the Internet, obscurity remains free.

Technicians across the country stare into boxes of jumbled wires countless times every day, because telephone numbers reflect physical equipment in the field. But telephone numbers that reflect the general vicinity of a caller’s location represents a poor substitute for identity, and serve as a relic of the days before flat-rate calling. A new domain name assignment propagates across the global Internet in hours, but it can still take the telephone company a week to provision a telephone number. The persistence of telephone numbers reflects the long-standing pursuit of innovations that serve the telephone company, not telephone customers.

Progress in carrying voice over the Internet left the burden of telephone numbers in place. But while the 16-digit keypad may be ubiquitous, there is no imperative to use it. Why not utilize Internet and infotech platforms to recreate operator type functionality? Dial-by-name platforms work very well. Search engines turn the entire content of web sites into keyword alternatives for domain names, so why not allow callers to associate key word tags with their directory listing? Exchange keywords rather than telephone numbers with someone at a party or business meeting. Making users cope directly with telephone numbers makes no more sense than expecting people to navigate the Internet via IP addresses.