Blog Post

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.

29 Responses to “Here Comes Trouble: Telephone Number Tyranny”

  1. Things are changing, telnic guys working on this – see

    It isn’t the complete answer, but it is a step in the right direction.

    If you combine that with what we are doing at, you may
    never need to deal with digits again.

    A combination of presense driven dynamic DNS, search, and URIs and
    browser embedded phones may break the digital shackles.

  2. Dave Roper

    What you have described in your article can be accomplished through the use of a SIP URL, also called a SIP URI. An example might be sip:[email protected] I have modified my Asterisk dialplan to dial in and out via SIP and the outgoing SIP URL can be temporary or permanent. This would be useful for any VoIP or presence application. Email me at
    [email protected] if you have any questions.

  3. The stark contrast between internet and telephony can be attributed to the lack of application openness and thus, 3rd party innovation. ISPs are like “dumb pipes” from whom you purchase connectivity. Applications and features are provided by 3rd parties (Gmail, Godaddy, Youtube) and you pay your ISP only to carry data. Telephony, on the other hand, retains a legacy from the days where there was no clear distinction between application and connectivity. Telecoms are incapable content and application providers, but they insist on this business model because it promises higher margins and greater control.

  4. John Thacker

    Exchange keywords rather than telephone numbers with someone at a party or business meeting.

    Besides, the easy way to do this anyway would be to beam the number, along with name, email address, etc. directly onto one’s phone or PDA via Bluetooth. Once you do that, again, who cares about the number; it’s in your address book associated with their name.

  5. John Thacker

    Dial-by-name platforms work very well. …Exchange keywords rather than telephone numbers with someone at a party or business meeting.

    For small groups of people, sure, dial-by-name works great. If you’ve worked at an office with dial-by-name and multiple “Chris Smiths,” it doesn’t seem quite as great. IM nicknames and email addresses based on real names quickly devolve into alphanumeric combinations of “name1234” and that like. Nor does it seem so amazing if it’s a name that you’ve heard but can’t remember how to spell, either; you still end up having them spell it out letter-by-letter or write it down.

    It’s probably slightly better to have alphanumerics, but people still tend to keep address books for their email, buddy lists for their IM friends, and bookmarks for their webpages, just as they keep phone lists. Once you’re forced to have an address book, it’s close to the same whether it’s numeric or alphanumeric.

    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?

    Can you guarantee that your personal website is going to be the number one hit on the search engine? That it won’t change as other people add new keywords? That you won’t have to look at the results more closely to determine which one is the one you want? I have two friends named James Kao that were presidents of anime clubs in college; one was president of the anime club at Duke where I was an undergrad, one was president of the anime club at Cornell where I was a grad student. I can only imagine that it’s worse for more common names.

    Adding keywords to phone directory listings is good idea, but that’s still a difference in degree, not kind, when compared with existing directories. I certainly don’t want to search through a directory every single time I want to call someone; I’m going to put it in an address book. Search by name in a directory to get a telephone number and put it in an address book is not that different from search by name in a directory to get an alphanumeric that I then put in an address book.

    Exchange keywords rather than telephone numbers with someone at a party or business meeting.

    Would this really be that useful? For me, I get the number at a party or meeting, immediately put it in my phone’s list of numbers, and then it’s effectively dial-by-name for me from then out. Why do I want keywords so that I can go home, run those keywords and the name (assuming I remember how to spell it) into a search engine, and then look through the hits to make sure that I have the right person before adding them? I’ll take instantly having the way to connect to them that I can test right now by calling them while still at the party or meeting, thanks.

  6. Yeah lets hook it up in hours so 911 does not know where to go. Bright idea……NOT!!

    It takes as long as it does due to 911 mapping to your phone number so they know where to go when you call them.

  7. Bend blogger

    Just Like the service of 1930’s — I call goog411 and the “operator” connects me … Granted only for business listings but it works pretty well and I don’t have to worry about someone knowing my business. Or then again I’m sure they track and track and track ;-)

  8. macdad614

    Your article reminds me that I need to FIRE the wired phone company which charges me W-A-Y too much every month for a product I do NOT need.

    [How did the operator know where your mom was? Had she been listening to those conversations?]

  9. Joshua,

    No one imagines solving the problem with human labor. The question is why no one does a better job given the existence of the Internet and fast cheap getting faster and cheaper infotech platforms.

    The job prospects for human telephone operators will remain poor.

  10. I’ve always figured that phone numbers will die in the future. Why limit yourself to a numeric keypad? Obviously when instant messaging came out (aside from ICQ) the majority of services let you give yourself a full alphanumeric id. I suspect we won’t see any of those changes until the phone companies’ major product is selling internet access rather than archaic “phone” service. And they will certainly be fighting that for a while.

  11. Dimitrios Matsoulis

    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.

  12. Idontcall Icommunicate

    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?]

  13. 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.

  14. 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.