How Long Until Phone Numbers Are A Historical Relic?

from the bye-bye dept

I recently had a conversation with a friend about the obsolescence of telephone numbers these days. For the most part, I don’t remember anyone’s phone number anymore, because I just click on their name in my contacts list if I call them. In many ways, phone numbers are like IP addresses. On the internet, we’ve wisely obscured IP addresses for the most part with URLs, and these days, we’ve done something pretty similar by default with phone numbers thanks to built-in phone address books. But, the problems with phone numbers goes even further — starting with the fact that they’re tied to a single provider. Via Planet Money, we learn of this fun rant from Nilay Patel, detailing why it’s time for phone numbers to die, and how Google, Microsoft and Apple are all working to speed along the death of the phone number:

I hate phone numbers. They?re a relic of an outmoded system that both wireless and wireline carriers use to keep people trapped on their services ? a false technological prison built of nothing but laziness and hostility to consumers. In fact, I can?t think of a single telecom service that is as restrictive as the phone number: email can be accessed from any device, Skype makes apps for nearly every platform, IM works across any number of clients, there are web-based messaging solutions that transcend platforms entirely ? the list goes on. We expect modern telecom services to be universal, cheap, and easily-accessible, and those that aren?t tend to be immediate failures. Ask Cisco how Umi went for them sometime.

As he notes, you can start to break out of those limits today, thanks to things like Google Voice and Skype, and as that advances, we may finally reach an age when the idea of a telephone number is a historical relic… like the people who used to say letters for the first two digits of their phone number.

Filed Under: ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “How Long Until Phone Numbers Are A Historical Relic?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
AJBarnes says:

The new world order

Analog and dedicated digital phone service will be a thing of the past in the very near future, if you ask me. Once there is a viable choice for alternatives, people will shed their shackles to Ma Bell and move on to friendlier pastures (just picture Lily Tomlin pulling on her neckline and saying ‘we’re the phone company… we don’t have to care).

Many of the generation just starting out in their own homes are eschewing traditional wired phones in favor of cell phones. But, cell phones are already seeing digital alternatives powered by VOIP programs which will eliminate the old way of calling in favor of more competition, lower prices and greater choice for consumers.

DannyB (profile) says:

Voice is data

With VoIP and enough standardization, it’s not inconceivable that one day the phone companies could find themselves being bypassed just like the post office before them.

It just will have taken longer.

The Internet truly is disruptive. That seems to be one of the frequent themes of TD.

Disruption happens to those who charge monopoly rents. We all remember 20 years ago how much it cost to get caller ID and other fairly trivial software services like star-69.

The fact is that the (true) cost of an international call on Skype (built in to your fixed monthly data ISP cost) is so much less than making a real international call reflects how distorted the (false) pricing in the phone system have become.

Don’t get me started on these ridiculous Tethering charges on mobile phones with LIMITED data plans.

Anonymous Coward says:

Bu, bu, but . . .

Obviously we should legislate to protect america’s commerce interests and stop telephony piracy by rogue websites like Skype, Vonage, Vocalocity and AT&T. This continued use of telephony infringes on the intellectual property and costs billions in lost cell and land-line services. I also have it on good authority that telephony piracy is done on sites with a gateway to other terrorist and child pornography activities. What we need is a Federal bureau that is willing to step up and seize these pirates and press criminal infringement charges so America can protect it’s telephony commerce.

Anonymous Coward says:

I like having a landline. My smartphone eats battery so bad (even with tweaks to save battery) that I can hardly call it dependable. The connection on my landline is far superior to that of my cell as well.

And it makes me almost ill to think of informing I don’t know how many people, utilities, websites, etc. of a change to a phone number I’ve had for over 15 years now. *shudder*

Anonymous Coward says:

Bu, bu, but . . .

Ok no seriously, I haven’t had a cell phone in the traditional sense for almost 10 years. While I have had various cellular data plans, there’s been no phone # attached. I use skype (and now google voice) when I have to, but most of my interactions aren’t via voice chat. I’ve had various umpc’s or tablets over the years to do this. Now that I have an android device that can do everything I need without having to be a cell phone too, why would I ever go back?

In fact, I’m having a hard time justifying the stupid cellular data plans. Since I am rarely without internet (or city wifi) why should I pay 60 bucks a month for ubiquitous when I have 99% of that now anyway?

Rich Fiscus (profile) says:

Not going away any time soon

There are a couple of reasons I don’t see phone numbers going away any time soon. The first is also the difference between personal and domain names. IP addresses and telephone numbers are both globally unique*, as are domain names. People’s names, on the other hand, almost never are. In order to switch to another system you first have to map every phone (or identity) using some other system that is unique, like a Google account for Google Voice. That seems simple enough until you consider that it may be necessary to call someone whose Google identity you don’t have. I may not care if someone can call me without knowing my Google name, but some people, and certainly almost all businesses, need a way to be found using their name. In other words a directory like we have for the phone system.

And of course we also need an underlying common system so people using Google Voice can connect to people using Skype or some other service. Since it’s unlikely all the big players aren’t going to agree on common standards, that means coming up with a separate network they could all connect to – like the phone system.

On top of all that, unless everyone in the world switches to the new technology immediately, any new system will still need to connect to the existing phone system anyway.

It’s basically a situation where the current system is the worst possible solution – except for all the alternatives.

*Technically they are unique within their own context, but as long as we’re talking about internet IP addresses and phone numbers you can call from the public telephone network global is the easiest way to describe it.

TechnoMage (profile) says:

Bu, bu, but . . .

That last 1% … Which is why people justify cell phones, to provide a means of help in an emergency. I said ‘Justify’ not ‘have’ cell phones. People ‘have’ them because most of the US isn’t covered by wifi, and heck… land wise… I don’t think over 90%(randomly picked #, it’s probably lower, but ehh) of it is covered by cell phones. But thats mostly areas where there is no population (which would then require sat phones).

If everyone lived in Judge Dredd ‘Mega Cities’, then YES, cell service would be useless, but thats not how the US is. The population density of a LOT of the US is super tiny compared to large cities.

dfed (profile) says:

Bu, bu, but . . .

(AC above was me, I finally bit the bullet and registered.)

This is true, but there’s something to be said for not having to be on all the time. There are times I am specifically unavailable to clients and friends, because I’m doing something else.

I wonder how much of this justification is the perception that we need to be plugged in 100% of the time? Hell, when I was a kid and on a dirt road and my crap car died, I still survived.

A.R.M. (profile) says:

If phone numbers are removed...

…what will Hollywood do to replace “555” numbers in movies?

Oh, I know!

As for the topic at hand: I actually agree. However, I’m not sure there’s a viable solution to replacing phone numbers behind the software converting “Call Mike” to a number in SF.

While I’m sure the telephone number we know it as has evolved into binary data, somewhere is a system restoring those digits into an analog signal.

Despite having VoIP with my cable company, my phone is still analog based.

Perhaps a true digital phone exists which can rely on an IP address rather than 555.1212?

I’d be willing to upgrade without any problem.

Adam (profile) says:

I agree with the sentiment, but can’t believe that phone companies will let it happen any time soon. Aside from the naming problem already mentioned or a new and better DNS system for finding contacts, the Internet as we know it doesn’t have rates that vary by distance while phone companies rely on that for an important part of their income. Agreed that Skype and GV don’t have that limitation, but their connections are simply not as good as phone by wire. Further, think about countries like India where more folks probably own cell phones than have land lines. Alternatives to a phone number boggle the mind.

Anonymous Coward says:


I’ve taken my cell number around to different carriers 6 times since the FCC made porting possible. I’ve never once been charged for porting.

I’ve also been told I can take the number to VoIP services, but I don’t know about getting that number back as I believe the regulation was limited to wireless providers.

I’ve, of course, moved out of the state I originally got my cell phone in 11 years ago, and I get a kick out of handing out my now bizarre area code to people. Good times!

MAC says:

Not going away any time soon

It’s going to be real simple:
All you have to do is use the unique identifier stored in the Intel Model 666 microprocessor that they are going to embed into everyone’s brain or just use the code to the bar code that’s been tatooed in invisible ink on your forehead…
If you don’t have one:
No phone calls
No money
No citizenship
No purchasing
No job
And no casting into the fiery pit of brimstone…

Gwiz (profile) says:

For the most part, I don’t remember anyone’s phone number anymore, because I just click on their name in my contacts list if I call them.

What’s even worse is when somebody asks for your cellphone number.

I don’t know how many times, when asked for my cell number, I have just stood there for a few minutes with a blank, stupid look on my face, trying to remember it before I pull out my phone and stumble through the menus trying figure out where it’s hidden.

DannyB (profile) says:

Honest question

Maybe we’ll stop using phone numbers after we use data to completely bypass the traditional phone system that assigns the phone numbers and they’re no longer relevant to anyone.

As long as voice calling remains cheap enough, this may never happen. Other phone services, such as international calling, and non-existent services such as video calling, are already being routed around. Just as email did to the post office. Just as online news did to the printed newspaper.

The question is like asking when they’ll stop putting rubber bands around the news we read. The rubber bands are still being used by some people, in fact, I know one person who still get rubber bands delivered with his news. This older person also still has a landline telephone.

(The other possible answer to your question is that we’ll switch from phone numbers to birth assigned international ID numbers.)

Chris-Mouse (profile) says:

In any communications system, the node identifiers must be unique. Currently, the telephone system uses something like 14 digits to create a globally unique identifier for each phone. IP addresses are also globally unique. IPV4 addresses are only 12 digits at most, and there aren’t enough of them to go around as is. IPV6 addresses are numerous enough to supply several to every person on the planet, but a 32 character ‘random’ hexadecimal string is much harder for humans to memorize than a string of digits.
Humans are best at remembering strings of text, but there we have a problem. If we use random strings of characters as an ID, they’re no better than the IP addresses. If we restrict ourselves to pronouncable strings to make memorization easier, there just aren’t enough. I’d love to have a unique identifier of firstname-lastname, but I know of at least three famous people with the same first and last name as me, and I’ve got an unusual combination. even something like firstname-lastname-cityofbirth-country isn’t enough to be unique for someone like Bob Smith of Boise Idaho, USA.
I can see some sort of assignment of a unique individual ID consisting of an owner unique prefix combined with a two digit suffix to identify a specific device owned by that person, but that’s still just a minor variation on the traditional phone number.

Phone numbers are far from being perfect, but I don’t see us coming up with anything better for a very long time, if ever.

DannyB (profile) says:

Not going away any time soon

Here is totally made up hypothetical I posted on Slashdot, probably more than ten years ago (although slightly updated here).

The circuitry becomes so thin and flexible that an advanced personal digital assistant can be applied to the exterior of your skin, say on your hand. These will be even better than today’s magic voice operated touch screen computers that we call smart phones with NFC to pay bills.

Problem is, they tend to wear off and wear out. So they are have short lives and are disposed of, like contact lenses. Every few months, you get a new one applied. This ensures that you have to keep coming back.

Various models are more desirable and more expensive.

Because they are such a basic necessity, even poor people can obtain them. Corporations will subsidize them in exchange for the user also having another one applied to their forehead that displays colored animated advertising banners.

Teenagers will especially go nuts over this. It will be a status symbol of whose ads you are wearing, not unlike clothes or backpacks are today.

Gracey (user link) says:

[As he notes, you can start to break out of those limits today, thanks to things like Google Voice and Skype, and as that advances, we may finally reach an age when the idea of a telephone number is a historical relic… like the people who used to say letters for the first two digits of their phone number.]

Well like any service there still has to be a way to identify the person the service is leading to. What’s the difference if it’s a telephone number or some other identifier? You still need one. Sorry, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Oh wait – I get, we’ll all use barcodes instead?

Super…I can’t remember my cell number but I’m supposed to try and remember something even more remote?

There is still something to be said on the side of the telephone number…it’s hooked to my home, for a reason. When I go out, it stays at home…who wants to answer the phone at a beach picnic? Pffft…even my cell stays home.

Some of us still really don’t want to be contacted all the time. I’m one of them. Happy…even blissfully happy in my ignorance of the telephone ringing away at home on my desk.

Telephone numbers are rather personal…I remember our first telephone number (oh, about 45 years back I guess), and my aunt’s old alpha-prefix (cherry-9) for her phone about the same time period. What I can’t friggin’ remember is my own cell phone number.

If I get a choice, I’ll keep mine. Thank you very much.

Oh…yes, I am something of a dinosaur (and probably will be til the bitter end), but that’s I choice that I make. Because I can. I hope it stays that way, for at least my lifetime.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:


the Internet as we know it doesn’t have rates that vary by distance while phone companies rely on that for an important part of their income

Do they still? Most people have a cell phone, and I don’t t think I’ve seen a cell plan that charges for long distance calls. As far as international calls go, I would guess most people are using either a calling card, or more likely using something like Skype, Google Voice, or Yahoo IM. I’d love to see some data on this either way. My guess is that long distance phone calls make a very tiny portion of any telecom’s income.

Anonymous Coward says:

Well I guess if we are going to replace phone numbers we need a way of identiying and giving them a unique number that is always theirs and follows them around their entire life.

So the simple solution is, when you are born, you are assigned a number / barcode, so you know what it is it is tatooed / stamped into your arm (was thinking back of neck, but you cant see it so not much good). Then when you set up email / phone / credit cards etc you are scanned. Problem solved, everything is linked to you.

ofc ID theft would be a whole lot easier

Anonymous Coward says:

is a historical relic… like the people who used to say letters for the first two digits of their phone number.
Phone numbers that start with letters/words may be relics but historical relics, but I’m not! I don’t think (I’m not yet “historical” anyway). I do, however, still remember my first phone number as “LOckhaven, nine, four, six….”

Anonymous Coward says:

Phone numbers don’t have to be tied to a particular carrier. It is just the anti-consumer and monopolistic telecom companies tied with a pro-corporate government that make you believe that.

Long ago, here in Australia, the powers that be decided that a phone number is your personal property. It is mandated by law that you are allowed to take your phone number with you when you move carriers, both mobile and PSTN numbers.

It was decided that competition would be greater if you were allowed to freely move between carriers without having the artificial lock-in of losing your phone number.

The process is simple. You sign up with the new carrier and fill out the “porting” authority form. You get given a blank SIM card and within a week your new carrier seizes the number from you old carrier and links it to your new SIM. You know it is completed when your old SIM stops working.

The US government could do the same if it was more concerned about competition and the rights of the consumer than the profits of the telecom companies. But what can you do about it?

Rekrul says:

Keeping your Phone Number

Not to mention it’s fun when AT&T tries to tell you they’re going to charge you hundreds of dollars to do it when by law they have to do it for free.

Then you just call the FCC and complain and the snail mail, e-mails and phone calls start flying as they kill themselves to kiss your stinky toes.

Does that apply to all companies/situations, or just to dedicated phone companies?

Cablevision tells me I’ll have to pay $40 to switch my AT&T landline phone number over to them.

Ash Crill says:

Hasn’t this already happened with mobile phones?

Mobile phones allow you to label a phone number so that you dial ‘contact name’ rather than ‘phone number’

I agree that there is scope for better integration with online services, but any number-less solution would just be a more sophisticated version of the above process.

Telephones are machines, and don’t know where to route a call without a number.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

19th- vs 20th-Century Technologies

The telephone system originated in the 19th century, and even mobile phone networks carry over relics of this. By contrast, the Internet is very much a product of the 20th century.

Compare the difference: every phone has an address (phone number), and you call a phone by specifying its address. Whereas on the Internet, even though every node on the network still needs an address, you typically refer to people/machines you want to connect to by a domain name, which is mapped by the worldwide network of DNS servers to the actual address. That way, the address can change, and you don?t have to care.

What the phone system needs is a DNS to abstract away from the numbers/addresses. Personalized address books aren?t good enough, it needs to be systemwide.

Chargone (profile) says:


or you could be in NZ where payphones are rare (due to the cost of upkeep and pretty much every building having a phone anyway) not to mention it’s almost random as to whether a given payphone want’s a phone card or coins, and wifi hotspots are extremely rare (and practically nonexistant outside of the cities) … plus new laws that are probably going to kill off the ones that do exist (thank you SO VERY MUCH, american entertainment industry :S)

you’re actually probably going to have more luck going to a shop or farmhouse and asking to use their phone (depending on where you’re calling) or if you can make use of a power socket to recharge your own. more likely to work.

Chargone (profile) says:

Voice is data

see, here abouts the local phone companies got smart. while they still gouge you horribly on mobile data plans, a combination of well chosen regulation and smart business decisions lead them to be the major entities in the ISP business as well. (note, we didn’t used to have cable TV. it finally came about when one of the phone companies started laying fiber to the home for better internet services and thought it’d be useful for getting customers to provide the satalite tv channels as part of the service.)

‘course, the structure of our telecomunications industry is hard to keep track of. there are no monopolies anymore, but a lot of the older entities find themselves being customers, suppliers, and competitors to each other… often at the same time. then there’s the constant attempts by both business and government regulation to try to find a balance that provides fair pricing to the customer, reasonable profits to the telcos, And deals with the fact that NZ isn’t actually big enough for there to be viable competition at anything but a retail level.

(a recent change broke up the major entity that started life as part of the postoffice and was our main telco so it’s retail part is now a seperate entity… something to do with the new government funded broadband improvement plan or something. i forget the termonolgy and such.)

when it comes to mobile… so far as i can tell most people just use prepayed sim cards for personal stuff. only limit is that if you don’t put at least 20NZD on ’em a year they expire and you have to buy a new one (for about NZD30.) the number is tied to the sim card, and technically you can stick the card in anything that’ll take a sim card. the Card is tied to the telco in question, of course. but if your phone’s flat and your friend’s isn’t, a little fiddleing to swap the cards out will let you at your list.

it’s also common to be able to store your contact list on either the phone, or the card. (if one is smart and not lazy, one will do both) so if you get a new phone, or the card expires… well, as long as they don’t happen at once you’ve still got your info.

Chargone (profile) says:

Honest question

well, i can see that going down like a lead balloon here. (fast and with a messy impact at the end)

well, given how our government works, i can see it happening, but currently there’s no legal way to do it 🙂

here’s a question: what’s the difference between a phone number and a fixed IP, and how does someone go about finding your one, specifically, on an international network used by millions and millions of people? That is the purpose the phone number serves, really. ya gotta admit, it’s actually less complex (if less easily remembered) tahn the way web addresses work. and the phone’s contact list (enter number, attach to name, just grab the name from the list to talk to that person) works fine.

honestly, given that phone numbers are more unique than people’s Names, all i can see any change away from them doing is making it Harder to find the person you want. (well, the switch from ‘phone numbers’ to ‘fixed IP address’ would change nothing in that reguard beyond standardising the systems… until you realise that, here at least, the vast majority of our consumer internet stuff uses non-fixed IP addresses… and is identified with a consumer by the phone number it’s associated with, if i understand it correctly.)

Chargone (profile) says:


NZ has something similar… though if you move house and go far enough away from where you started, your landline number doesn’t go with you. (basically, if you’re still in the same area they just reshuffle how the numbers are asigned. if you move to a Different area, the first three digits have to change because you’re now on a different exchange, or at least that used to be the reasoning. that said they’d still try to get you the same number Within that exchange (last four digits) if it was not already assigned.)

Chargone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

it really is garbage. if nothing else, if you apply Hebrew numerology (which is actually aplicable) and read the text properly rather than misreading it and using western european numerology, the number in question is Not 666.

(there’s a whole lot of other reasons why that’s wrong even Before getting into the whole ‘i don’t believe the bible, christianity is rubbish, there is no end of the world, blah blah blah’ line of thinking. not gonna start a huge religeous argument over that here though.)

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...