The persistence of telephone numbers reflects the long-standing pursuit of innovations that serve the telephone company, not telephone customers. They are meaningless, and yet the wait for a mechanism that would reduce the need to keep track of them continues.

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.

  1. Thanks for bringing this up; it is a pet peeve of mine.

    This is yet another failure of the phone companies to provide services that a consumer needs.

    It took decades before the phone number portability happened and even then, it takes so long and is not always reliable.

    What is worse is that the phone companies are hindering the innovations that VOIP systems could bring. VOIP systems can’t address many of these problems because the underlying layer of POTS line is impregnable.

  2. MAny of these advanced features, such as dial by name, were offered by the now defunct French teletext system. What was its name…..?

  3. [...] This article highlights the difference you’ll see if you read virtually any Techcrunch post. I’m not saying the GigaOM post is groundbreaking or very thought provoking, but it is definitely the kind of criticism I can endorse: thoughtful, reasonable, clearly argued and written. [...]

  4. Yes. Oh yes! DEFINITELY YES!

    You should be able to identify, in real time, which phone or phones will ring whenever someone tries to call you.

    And, isn’t it time to allow the caller to know if they’re likely to get voicemail before they call?

    I think the “proper” replacement for phone numbers are instant messaging systems with presence, etc.

    XMPP anyone?

    P.S. Love the backward looking historical service perspective. I think most people feel nearly identically with respect to automated phone systems at businesses too. Give me an operator any day.

  5. I guess ENUM (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_Numbering) was hoping to address the problem by mapping PSTN numbers onto domains.

    I’ve always thought it’d be great if people could dial ‘imran@ali.name’ and some intelligent multiplexing (something like Twitter) could translate and route the media to the right format and device appropriate to my context :)

  6. Idontcall Icommunicate Thursday, February 7, 2008

    Legacy-crap dates to the 19th century. There isn’t room for it (though they try! They try!) in the 21st century.

    As soon as that “new spectrum” gets put in place just watch the Googles and Ciscos of the world move communications back into the 21st century.

    [what IS needed to "communicate", anyway? (1) Connectivity and (2) a route between here and there. That's IT. The first is a very-solved problem, the second has a couple solutions involving dynamically updated databases - think Google can handle a dynamically updated database problem?]

  7. Dimitrios Matsoulis Thursday, February 7, 2008

    Nothing has changed, telecom companies stay tyrannies because despite the anonymous dialing procedure it simple to speak to a real person -despite all the answering machines and menues we some times have to go through.
    Skype is great and we would love to have it accessed by everybody. As for Minitel, I was living in France back in the late 90s when the web was growing forcing Minitel to die. To achieve number and name linking you need ventral regulation, something not possible with the Internet.

  8. Human labor was cheaper in the 30’s? Who knew? The fact that Edward Tuck can’t afford as many servants these days seems like progress to me.

  9. [...] using that quote, Daniel lays in to “features” of the “modern” telephone system, such as the telephone number itself. He’s right, and I suspect that the telephone number (as [...]


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