Technology

A hot-button issue

WARREN CARAGATA February 15 1999
Technology

A hot-button issue

WARREN CARAGATA February 15 1999

A hot-button issue

Technology

Cell phones, pagers and extra phone lines for the fax machine, the alarm system, the kids, the Internet. Will it ever end? Although the growth of telephone service seems unstoppable, each device needs a number and that’s a problem: North America is simply running out of phone numbers. Sometime in the first 25 years of the next century, the Canadian and American standard of a three-digit area code followed by a sequence of seven numbers will likely go the way of the rotary phone and exchanges with pleasant names like Regent or Lakeview. “We need tons of new numbers,” says Toronto telecommunications consultant Eamon Hoey, “and we’re exhausting them.”

Canadians are among the world’s most avid telephone users. About 15 per cent of residential customers now have more than one line, Hoey says.

Industry estimates put the number of cell phones and pagers at 6.8 million. The most immediate result of the growth of telephone service is that everyone is being forced to remember a raft of new area codes. One—780—was added last month for Edmonton and the northern half of Alberta as 94 per cent of the 7.92 million numbers in the 403 code were assigned. But these changes pale in comparison with what lies ahead: the end of sevendigit local dialing and, farther down the road, a complete overhaul of the telephone numbering system shared by Canada, the United States and 17 Caribbean and Pacific islands. “You’re looking at a huge cultural shift,” says Ginny Dybenko, Bell’s communications vicepresident.

Few would have predicted when area codes were first introduced in North America back in 1947 that it would be possible to run out of numbers. After all, with 7.92 million numbers in each area code and 792 area codes available, it must have seemed there would be enough to go around for an eternity. The system allows for a staggering 6.3 billion numbers. But, says Doug Birdwise, of Stentor Canadian Network Management in Ottawa and chairman of the numbering

committee for the Canadian phone industry, current estimates are that by 2025 those numbers could be used up. Plans are already being discussed for what will follow, and any new system will be implemented well before the stock of digits is depleted. Birdwise says the most likely change would be the addition of one number to the area code and one number to the exchange code. Such a revision would be an enormous undertaking, perhaps on the order of the

The high-tech boom is exhausting Canada’s supply of phone numbers

fixes needed to prepare computers for the rollover to the year 2000. Every telephone system and every computer database that provides space for only 10-digit phone numbers would have to be reconfigured. “This is a big deal,” Birdwise says.

Before the big changes take effect, North American phone users will only have to worry about the explosion of new area codes. It took more than 40 years to run out of numbers in the first 144 codes that were assigned, says Ron Conners, director of the North American Numbering Plan Administration in Washington. Since 1995, phone companies gobbled up another 126 codes and new ones

are being added to the North American network at the rate of about 30 a year, a figure that has grown about 12 per cent annually. ‘We’re burning area codes,” Conners says.

In the United States, code growth has been phenomenal. In California, the number of codes has more than doubled in less than a decade. Metropolitan Boston added two area codes in 1997 and, within a year, residents were told they would need to add two more by 2000.

In Canada, growth has been slower but is accelerating. The initial Canadian assignments lasted until 1993 when the Toronto region added the 905 code for its suburbs. British Columbia added a second code— 250—in 1995; the Northwest Territories and Yukon received their own—867—two years later. Last year, the Montreal region added its second one—450. Alberta’s new 780 sequence will become mandatory on May 18. Toronto will likely get a third code—647—sometime in 2001, and Birdwise says expectations are that the 905 code will be exhausted in 2003. The new Toronto code, Dybenko says, will mark the first time in Canada that one geographic area will share more than one code, called an “overlay” in telephone parlance. In one way, an overlay is easier for customers because existing phone numbers don’t change, but it means someone adding a second line could have two area codes in the same house. And it will also mean the advent of 10-digit calling in Toronto, even for local calls.

Back when the numbering system was devised, no one ¡j thought too much about con« serving numbers, Dybenko E says. But numbers do get I wasted. Competition has been 1 the biggest problem: each I company that enters the mar3 ket gets a batch of 10,000 numi bers—the smallest block that I can be assigned—for each exchange area it serves, even if it has only a few customers. Numbers are also wasted in other ways. Companies like Bell allow customers to reserve numbers for future use. That ties up about five per cent. Another 10 per cent are out of use because the industry does not reassign a number for up to a year when someone moves and gets a new one. Cutting that period, or making it harder to reserve numbers, could help slow the process. But curbing the desire for phones is the only way to save the sevendigit number. And that does not seem likely.

WARREN CARAGATA

(caragata@macleans.ca)