The Country Is Running Out Of Phone Numbers

It’s been a tough few months for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. It seems like each of their high-profile lobby efforts has met an FCC rebuke. Add to that list a CTIA petition to keep the pool of available phone numbers for carriers at current levels. The FCC ruled instead that the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA) will require carriers to use up a higher portion of the numbers they already have in inventory before being issued more. The usage requirement will rise from 65% to 75% over the next year. Although it seems sensible that carriers use 100% of the numbers issued to them, it’s not that simple. North American phone numbers are built like 1-NPA-NXX-####, where NPA is the area code and NXX is a prefix which denotes the central office (CO) with about 10,000 possible phone lines. While some NXX prefixes are almost out of available numbers, others are using only a small portion, yet it’s difficult to transfer the available numbers between COs. Therefore, carriers request fresh numbers or new prefixes for their congested COs. Another way the FCC and the numbering authorities are considering stretching number resources is by increasing the “contamination level”. This means re-using available numbers that were previously registered to customers. Raising the contamination level results in customers getting phone calls intended for the previous owner of the number, which could make for colorful conversations and new friends, or annoying fax tone calls all day. Some solutions to these problems include area code overlays and splits, both of which provide 7,920,000 new numbers (but area codes, too, are not unlimited). An overlay means that two area codes serve the same geographic area (see: the Seinfeld 212 vs. 917 episode). Overlays require 10-digit dialing, but no customer needs to change existing phone numbers. A geographic split creates haves and have-nots. Some customers keep their phone numbers, while others in outlying areas are given a new area code. Seven-digit dialing remains, but many people must change their phone numbers, and alert all their contacts. Yes, we’re running out of numbers, and surprisingly enough, you can’t simply create more. Some kudos should be offered to the 1940s architects of this system at AT&T, and to the numbering authorities, because despite the high quantity of phone lines, North America has some of the simplest, straightforward dialing in the world.

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