Too Many Numbers!

The average number of digits that must be dialed to place a telephone call has increased consistently since the invention of the telephone itself – from 4 digits, to 5 digits, to 6 digits, to 7 digits. The North American Numbering Plan (NANP), however, standardized 7 digits as the uniform length of a telephone number and established 3-digit area codes for calls to distant cities around the time that direct-distance-dialing (DDD) became first available to customers.

Today, our numbering plan is being abused. We have inconsiderate parents, blind to the effects this device will have on their child’s health, dish out mobile phones to all their offspring. Gone are the days when there was just one number per household, if that (remember party-lines)? We have employees, who can never be reached by calling their work number, assigned their own number anyways. Gone are the days when a PBX operator knew where employees where and connected to you to the employee you actually wished to speak with, and not a telephone in an empty office.

AT&T infuriated many souls in the late 1950s and early 1960s when they announced telephone numbering practice would phase out exchange names in favor of all number calling. In reality, this made absolutely no difference to how telephone numbers were dialed. KLondike5-1212, is the exact same number as 555-1212, and is dialed exactly the same. It was just a different mindset. Certainly, AT&T’s decision to switch numbering formats did not prevent anyone from still remembering, writing, and dialing their numbers with the exchange-letter mindset, although it certainly discouraged it thereafter. And yet, groups like the Anti-Digit Dialing League and the Committee of Ten Million to Oppose All-Number Calling were established. Certainly, all-number calling broke telephony tradition. We probably would have opposed AT&T’s decision at the time too. Today, letters are still often used in telephone numbers for the same reason they originally were — words, and even letters, are easier to remember than a string of numbers.

A common misconception is that telephone numbers are 10 digits in length. This is simply not true. Telephone numbers do not consist of the area code. The format (NPR) NXX-XXXX is the appropriate way to write a telephone number including the area code, and has become common now that so many of our calls cross area codes. But the format NPR-NXX-XXXX is incorrect, as it treats the area code as if it were part of the telephone number when it is not. Likewise, at least traditionally, the area code was never dialed unless you were making a call to a different area code, in which case you would dial 1 + the area code before dialing the telephone number of the party you wished to reach. Dialing 1 indicated that you were making a toll call and that you would be charged for it.

10-digit dialing is a new nuisance that has been somewhat necessitated by the careless manner in which we utilize telephone numbers. The entire principle of 10-digit dialing is that once new area codes are overlaid onto already existing area codes, 10 digits, as opposed to the standard 7 digits, will need to be dialed.

The reasoning for this, however, is fundamentally flawed. Standard practice is to dial the telephone number (which is 7 digits in North America) for local calls (i.e. in the same area code) and to dial 1 + the area code + the telephone number for long-distance calls (i.e. in a different area code). Long distance calls are usually, but not always, calls made to another area code, and vice versa.

10-digit dialing is an emerging nuisance that is becoming widespread. But who really wants to dial 10 digits to reach their neighbor? It’s almost as much work as making a long-distance telephone call! Because most people are usually unaware of which area codes they can call without a call becoming long-distance, confusion over whether to dial a ‘1’ first can result.

Because long-distance calls are toll calls, calls to different area codes within the same geographical area code should not be considered long-distance, and should be billed at the local or local-toll rate. The NANP designates that 1 be dialed before making any toll-call (i.e. a call that will not be free to dial and one that you will be billed for unless you have a flat-rate long distance package).

The practice of allocating telephone numbers in blocks of 10,000 has contributed some to this problem. Numbers are now allocated in blocks of 1,000 or less. But numbers aside, nobody should have to dial their own area code to make a call within their area code; this is the fundamental problem with 10-digit dialing.

Imagine you live in Manhattan and your area code is 212. To dial a number within the same area code, you need only dial the number itself. There is no need to dial the area code. 646 and 332 are the other two area codes for Manhattan. Regardless of what number you wished to reach in whatever area code, you should not have to dial 212 in order to reach (212) 555-1212 (which, incidentally, is the same number as (212) KL5-1212). If you wished to reach (646) 555-1212 or (332) 555-1212, then the area could must be dialed, without the leading 1, since it is still a local call, not a toll call. But it makes no sense whatsoever to require calls within an area code to be made by dialing the area code. Apart from deviating significantly from the NANP standards, 10-digit dialing is an arbitrary nuisance that nobody should have to put up with. Thankfully, the solution is simple.

Whether or not an area code overlay is in effect, the telephone number should be dialed for calls within the same area code and the area code + the number for local calls to different area codes. For local toll calls, 1 + the number should be dialed, and for long-distance calls, 1 + the area code + the number should be dialed. Likewise, when you dial your own area code for a call within your area code, the extra digits should cause an error or will simply be ignored.

Telephones were and should still be easy to use. Nobody should have to dial more than 8 digits to reach anyone in the same area code. It’s common sense: require 11 digits for long-distance calls, 10 digits for local calls to a different area code, 8 digits for local toll calls, and 7 digits for local calls. Some exchanges even allow subscribers to dial the last 4 digits of a number to reach another party within the same NXX exchange. Rest assured that once the Bell System is reinstated, 10-digit dialing will be killed!

The Anti 10-Digit-Dialing League,
Committee of Many to Oppose 10-Digit Dialing,
Bell System Board