American companies have made a mess that annoys millions . . .

Area-Code Hell
Conrad Weisert, June, 2005

© 2005, Information Disciplines, Inc., Chicago. This article may be circulated freely as long as this copyright notice is included.

A reasonable start

In the 1960s the American telephone monopoly, AT&T, introduced "direct distance dialing". Their scheme preserved the 7-digit telephone numbers then in effect in most U.S. and Canadian cities by adding a 3-digit prefix area code, such as 202 for the District of Columbia.

The initial set of area codes was far less logical than the ZIP codes being established at about that time by the U.S. Post Office, having no geographic sequence and a huge range of area sizes. There was, nevertheless, some sense to the scheme:

In some areas you had to dial 1 first. That was common in very large areas, where many calls within the same area-code were considered "long distance".

Running out of numbers

That scheme worked fine for a couple of decades, but eventually the most populous areas started running out of numbers to assign to new subscribers, largely due to short-sighted planning by AT&T and other telephone companies. The capacity crisis was aggravated by:

  1. Telephone companies' success in selling "direct inward dialing" to large organizations, using up a separate phone number for every internal extension.

  2. Unforeseen (by them) growth in portable (cell) phones.

As a short-term stopgap, the telephone companies1 established a few new area codes and split some of the most overloaded ones. The Chicago suburbs became 708 and several boroughs of New York city became 718. Subscribers ordered new stationery and business cards.

That approach may have minimized the telephone companies' cost of reprogramming their switches, but they had a choice. Given that phone numbers of the form:
3 digits 7 digits
had nearly exhausted the range in an area, there were (at least) two ways of expanding that area's capacity:
strategy gain in capacity number of
additional digits
to be dialed
establish a
new area code
twice as
many numbers
add a digit to the
local phone number
ten times as
many numbers

The choice may seem obvious to telephone users, but no one asked our opinion at the time. I heard a rumor about one telephone company spokesperson who claimed that Americans couldn't be expected to remember 8-digit local phone numbers, while they could easily remember a few nearby area codes. That may or may not have been the phone companies' view, but experience has shown that Parisians and Londoners have no trouble at all with 8-digit phone numbers. The Americans I know are just as intelligent.

Looking back we note with regret that if America had adopted 8-digit local numbers2, all of northern Illinois would still be in 312 and all of New York City would still be in 212 with plenty of capacity for more numbers.

In any case, even that awful solution didn't last long.

Running out of numbers again

Telephone companies next responded by abandoning the distinction between area codes and exchanges. From then on, we had both local exchanges that looked like area codes (416) and some new area codes that looked like local exchanges (847). Of course areas that hadn't demanded the initial 1 for out-of area calls then had to start doing so.

That bought the telephone companies a few years, but was still no permanent solution.

Running out of numbers yet again

Chicago's affluent north suburbs have had their area code changed twice, from 312 to 708 and then to 847. And now even 847 is once again exhausted! Other populous affluent areas have experienced similar disruption.

At last, subscribers are fed up. They won't tolerate another split in their area and yet another new area code. Instead the telephone companies have come up with another solution that still preserves their ancient 7-digit programming: "overlay" areas, i.e. two area codes serving the same geographic space. Current customers in the area get to keep their present area code, while new subscribers are assigned the new one.

To avoid discriminating, the phone companies require users in such areas to dial the area code even when it's their own! In some of them (Manhattan), they have to dial the initial 1 as if they were making a long-distance call3, while in others (Baltimore) they don't.

Even this latest scheme is unlikely to last. Telephone companies are talking about separating the 3-digit prefixes from geography altogether and letting subscribers retain whatever code they began with even when they move across the country. So much for being able to remember a few nearby area codes.

Lessons learned?

The people of North America are now stuck with a clumsy and burdensome telephone number scheme so inflexible that further disruption is inevitable. That happened because our people, our governments, and our regulatory agencies failed to recognize the importance of taking control of a vital public function, and we passively yielded to the self-serving internal whims of a few private sector companies. It's probably too late to clean up the telephone area-code mess, but let's never again close our eyes to the impact on our daily lives of bureaucratic corporations, especially monopoly utilities.

Final(?) Instalment for Chicagoans, November 2009

This month the telephone monopoly announced that Chicago would now join the growing list of areas where every call, even to the house next door, has to include both the area code and the initial 1. The telephone monopoly announced this as "11-digit dialing" as if it were some sort of technological advance.

The newspapers and broadcasters reported the change as if it were an act of God. There was no mention of where the edict had come from. It was all stated in impersonal terms ("Callers will have to . . .") or attributed to anonymous sources ("Officials stated that . . ."). Don't mess with the telephone company!

Another "unintended consequence" is affecting many large apartment and office buildings that have no full-time doorperson or receptionist. Visitors select a tenant on an outdoor keypad, and the intercom system dials the tenant's telephone number. Hundreds of such systems in Chicago have stopped working, leading to results ranging from minor annoyance and inconvenience to severe hardship. Some of the systems require reprogramming; others require costly replacement.

"Unintended consequence" is a polite term for the stupidity and arrogance of America's telephone monopolies. One of these days someone is going to die because of them.

1 -- I don't know which companies participated in which decisions. In addition to the telephone companies, Lockheed-Martin seems to have played a role.

2 -- The additional digit could be either part of the exchange or appended to the 4-digit portion. Note that such a scheme could operate with a mixture of 7-digit and 8-digit numbers, so that areas or individual exchanges that weren't exhausted would experience no change at all.

3 -- I've tried unsuccessfully to get an explanation for the redundancy. If every domestic call you dial begins with 1, what possible purpose does that 1 serve?

Last modified June 15, 2005

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