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June 2013
July 2013

2013-06-09 »

A Modest Proposal for the Telephone Network

You might not realize it, but there's an imminent phone number shortage. It's been building up for a while, but the problem has been mitigated by people using "PBXes", which basically add a 4-5 digit extension to the end of your phone number to expand the available range. The problem with PBXes is they don't work right with caller id (it makes it look like a bunch of people near each other all have the same phone number) and you can't easily direct-dial PBX extensions from a phone's integrated address book, unless your phone has some kind of special "PBX penetration" technology. (PBX penetration is pretty well-understood, but not implemented widely.)

Even worse: it's no longer possible to route phone calls hierarchically by the first few digits. Nowadays any 10-digit U.S. phone number could be registered anywhere in the U.S. and area codes change all the time.

So here's my proposal. Let's fix this once and for all! We'll double the number of digits in a Canada/U.S. phone number from 10 to 20. No, wait, that might not be enough to do fully hierarchy-based call routing, let's make it 40 digits. But that could be too much typing, so instead of using decimal, we can add a few digits to your phone dialpad and let you use hexadecimal instead. Then it should only be 33 digits or so, with the same numbering capacity as 40 decimal digits! Awesome!

It'll still be kind of a pain to remember numbers that long, but don't worry about it, nobody actually dials directly by number anymore. We have phone directories for that. And modern smartphones can just autodial from hyperlinks on the web or in email. Or you can send vcards around with NFC or infrared or QR codes or something. Okay, those technologies aren't really perfect and there are a few remaining situations where people actually rely on the ability to remember and dial phone numbers by hand, but it really shouldn't be a problem most of the time and I'm sure phone directory technology will mature, because after all, it has to for my scheme to work.

Now, as to deployment. For a while, we're going to need to run two parallel phone networks, because old phones won't be able to support the new numbering scheme, and vice versa. There's an awful lot of phone software out there hardcoded to assume its local phone number will be a small number of digits that are decimal and not hex. Plus caller ID displays have a limited number of physical digits they can show. So at first, every new phone will be assigned both a short old-style phone number and a longer new-style phone number. Eventually all the old phones will be shut down and we can switch entirely to the new system. Until then, we'll have to maintain the old-style phone number compatibility on all devices because obviously a phone network doesn't make any sense if everybody can't dial everybody else.

Actually you only need to keep an old-style number if you want to receive incoming calls. As you know, not everybody really needs this, so it shouldn't be a big barrier to adoption. (Of course, now that I think of it, if that's true, maybe we can conserve numbers in the existing system by just not assigning a distinct number to phones that don't care to receive calls. And maybe charge extra if you want to be assigned a number. As a bonus, people without a routable phone number won't ever have to receive annoying unsolicited sales calls!)

For outgoing calls, we can have a "carrier-grade PBX" sort of system that basically maps from one numbering scheme to the other. Basically we'll reserve a special prefix in the new-style number space that you'd dial when you want to connect to an old-style phone. And then your new phone won't need to support the old system, even if not everyone has transitioned yet! I mean, unless you want to receive incoming calls.


Or, you know. We could just automate connecting through a PBX.

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