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Area Codes Are Dead — Thank VoIP

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Over the years we have seen the gradual separation of phone numbers from geographical location. To date, Skype’s SkypeIn service has been the best demonstration of this trend; even though I live and work just outside Toronto, Canada, I have a Palo Alto, Calif., SkypeIn number for historical family reasons, and I recently acquired a San Francisco number for Truphone. The same separation can apply to most VoIP-based voice services.

Over the past couple of years Belgian-based Voxbone has also developed an international numbering service which offers its clients a “local” phone numbers in any of 5,000 cities in 45 countries. OnState has used Voxbone’s “local” numbers as access points to its virtual call center service; its clients’ businesses can offer customer service and support centers with worldwide “local” access. However, it would be even more convenient for businesses selling into multiple countries if they could simply offer one universal number worldwide. Now, they can.

Yesterday, three months after the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) made available the +883 “global” country code, Voxbone announced the launch of its country-agnostic iNum service. I first learned of Voxbone at last spring’s eComm 2008 where Voxbone CEO Rod Ullens first mentioned the iNum concept. This announcement starts to realize his vision of enabling low cost conversations with worldwide access by taking advantage of the technology around IP-based communications:

“iNum is a new kind of phone number for a new kind of world — a world with a new geography that’s about local presence and global relationships, not about distance or national borders,” said Rodrigue Ullens, CEO and co-founder of Voxbone. “We believe the new geography is defined by the markets, customers and vendors that businesses need to connect with most. We need ‘local’ communication with these people — whether calls originate on public-switched or VoIP networks, whether they are truly local or ‘virtually’ local.”

In practice, that means a Voxbone iNum Service Provider Partner will supply a customer, whether an individual or a business, with a number that has an 883 country code. Once the service is fully rolled out to Voxbone’s 5,000 local points of presence worldwide, that iNum number will be accessible for, at most, the cost of a “local” phone call from any PSTN or VoIP service.

“At most,” because fundamental to Voxbone’s services is that they are IP-based and therefore calls amongst iNum Partners’ services are free. Currently Voxbone has 10 iNum Service Provider Partners, including Truphone, Mobivox and Voxeo, who either have made iNum numbers available today or will do so in the next few weeks. (For those callers who don’t use an iNum partner’s service, iNum numbers can be called through 55 “local” access points in 45 countries for the cost of a call to these access points.) Ullens, in a SquawkBox conference call yesterday, said that Voxbone will be negotiating with carriers and service providers worldwide to build out their service to become universally available.

Voxeo has set up a demonstration iNum service example; call +883 510 001 800 028 024, give their virtual operator a U.S. postal code and you will get local weather reports. This call can be made via the iNum Partners’ services today; it will become available via the local access points as they are set up over the next week. Another example: iotum’s Callflower Conference Call service will be using iNum numbers in a few days.

Jim Courtney is an Associate Editor of Skype Journal.

16 Responses to “Area Codes Are Dead — Thank VoIP”

  1. LNP only contributed to the death of area codes to the extent that it made CLECs more viable in the mid to late 90s, thus causing a rash of code exhausts, leading to an explosion of NPA splits and overlay codes, which (along with the wireless explosion) resulted in the perception change that a “phone number” is really a ten-digit number, not a seven-digit number plus a three-digit “area code” that you only have to put in front if you’re “dialing long distance” – two concepts that are totally alien to most Americans under the age of 15. But I doubt that’s the kind of inside baseball analysis you were referring to.

    LNP does not allow people to “move from place to place within the US and (bring) their original phone number with them to their new landline.” The “L” stands for “Local”; LNP allows you to move from place to place within the rate center and bring your original phone number with you to your new landline. Landline numbers are still tied to a rate center for the purposes of E911. Because wireless and over-the-top VoIP have different rules for E911, they’re the only numbers that you can take with you if you move outside a rate center.

  2. Jim Courtney

    @Shai As I said during our SquawkBox conference call with Rod, 15-digit phone numbers will drive the adoption of Address Books to avoid dialing numbers anymore. Click to Call features on websites, such as provided by Skype’s browser toolbars, will become even more relevant and important as smartphones that recognize phone numbers on web pages and in emails are adopted.

    One criteria I have for evaluating some of these alternative calling services, such as Truphone or iSkoot, is whether they can use the Address Book native to the device. Truphone does; iSkoot does on the Skypephone but already has this as a suggestion from me (and I’m sure from others) for the iSkoot client on BlackBerry, Nokia N-Series and E-Series. Hopefully they’ll act on it in their next release of their clients.

  3. Great post Jim!

    Agree with Dan York: It’s more accurate to say wireless plus LNP killed area codes. iNum is killing country codes.

    The most relevant change in my mind, though, is that as intelligent address books become more pervasive (on your mobile phone, office phone, skype client, etc.) phone numbers are more and more hidden from view.

    When I was younger, I had a dozen phone numbers memorized. Now the only one I know is my own (oddly enough — not because I dial it, but because I need it as an identifying token when filling out forms, dealing with companies, etc.).

  4. Jim Courtney

    @kenburger for the U.S. you are probably correct about wireless phones losing their geographical relationship to an area code. But here in Canada, unless you go on a somewhat limited carrier-specific national calling plan, we are still paying long distance.

    Ironically I tried out Obama 08 on the iPhone a week ago; simply see what kind of mashup had been done. It sorts your contacts by state and encourages you to call those contacts in your state. Well, Dan York lives in New Hampshire but has a cell phone supplied by his employer in Florida. So he ended up in the Obama 08 as someone to contact for voting in Florida.

  5. Jim,

    Thanks for your kind words and mention of what we are doing with Voxeo to enable iNum functionality… just one correction, the iNum number for the weather app is: +883510001800028 (the one you listed actually is an iNum going to my cell phone, which explains the several calls I got from folks tonight).


    You are absolutely correct that wireless has killed “area codes” in North America – I would actually argue that it is a combination of wireless and also Local Number Portability (LNP). With wireless, people have just moved wherever and brought their phone with them. With LNP, people have moved from place to place within the US and brought their original phone number with them to their new landline. Thus I dial a Boston-area 617 phone number and reach a friend’s home out in California. Add into that the “unlimited” calling plans here in North America that don’t differentiate based on region and all together you have area codes fading into irrelevancy.

    Perhaps Jim might have better titled this “Country codes are dead…” because the real strength of iNum is that it creates a new country code that is no longer bound to a geographic “country”. I went into a bit more about the value this has in my post at:

    As to how much your carrier will charge, this is one of the things Voxbone is currently negotiating with carriers now. I know their goal is to get the costs to be as low as possible, ideally down in the couple-of-cents-per-minute range. We’ll have to see how successful they are in these discussions. Right now, iNums are primarily reachable via VoIP services. It’s the *promise* they have that is interesting.


  6. Hillrider

    Dream on: wireless is the true driver of “out-of-area” phone numbers: most 19-~25 year olds don’t have landlines, and their wireless number is generally from the area they grew up in, even though they moved somewehere else for college and probably again for work. Given that with wireless long distance charges are FREE, and people who call them are all on wireless, they don’t really care. Geeks with out-of-area VoIP numbers are a miniscule number when compared with this demographic. Sorry to burst your bubble.

    BTW, how much does my carrier charge me to call +883? I assume A LOT (because it sounds international), and won’t call it. And certainly I won’t take the time to look it up!