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This Man's Got Your Number : Due to the high demand for phone numbers, new area codes are replacing beloved old ones. Ronald Conners assigns them.


We need more. We have too many phones.

In other words, it is our fault.

"We're running out of numbers," Conners says. "What could we do?"

When area codes were initially handed out, the numbers were not random. The phone dial was in fact a dial. You placed a finger in the appropriate hole, rotated the dial clockwise until you hit the metal finger stop, and then let it snap back in place. On the snap-back, the digit you had dialed was entered as a series of clicks. Numbers containing large digits required more clicks and took longer to dial. The people who gave out the original area codes saw to it that the most frequently called cities got the numbers that were quickest to dial. Thus, New York got 212, L.A. got 213, Chicago, 312. If you were calling Anchorage, Alaska, however, you had to wait through the 26 clicks of 907. It made sense.

When touch-tone keypads replaced dials, all numbers took the same time and effort. Any combination of digits became as easy as any other.

A similar thing happened to typewriter keyboards, of course. With manual typewriters, it was necessary to place the most utilized keys physically apart so they did not keep jamming against each other: So the E and T and A and I were separated by less utilized letters, giving us the famous, quirky QWERTY keyboard. When electric typewriters replaced manual ones, it would have been possible to reconfigure the keyboard to make it more logical. Except no one did: It would have been too confusing for people.

With the phone company, it would seem, this has not been a concern.

Why are these new area codes so irritating?

"We are pushing the limits of memory span," suggests Susan Resnick of the Gerontology Research Center at the National Institute on Aging. Most people can remember six or seven or even eight numbers in succession, she says. The old area codes were familiar and repetitive, and could be "chunked" as one bit of information. With 10 unfamiliar digits, the numbers can overwhelm us.

The new area codes have been heaped atop the implacable voicemail that replaced secretaries, the automated directory assistance that replaced operators and other bewildering robotics. Now, suddenly, the area codes you once knew are useless.

"It changes where we live, psychologically," says James Katz, professor of communication at Rutgers University. Katz studies phone technology. Once, he lived and worked in the 201 area code. Then his work number was changed to the 908 area code. His home number remained 201, until it changed to 973. Now his work number is 732. All without moving or changing jobs.

"When we are assigned an area code we do not like," he says, "it feels like a loss of place or position in society. It is one means of alienation. We are losing our sense of place."

What about those old phone numbers with letter exchanges, like CYpress 9? Why can't we return to those? Why did we ever change from that system?

Because, Conners explains, eliminating the letters greatly increased the number of three-digit exchanges, in part by making the 0 and the 1 available. Zero and 1 have no letter equivalents.

But for decades after the change, telephone exchanges never, ever had a zero or a one in the first two positions! Plus, any two-number combination can be reduced to a pleasant-sounding exchange. Admittedly, "JKL" and "WXY" require some creative writing, but what's wrong with YPsilanti-9, or WLadislaw-6?

Lots of Leftovers

Eventually the truth comes out: We are not out of phone numbers.

There are plenty of unused phone numbers out there, millions of them. After the phone company was decentralized in 1984, competing carriers arose. Some were very small. They needed phone numbers to distribute to their new clients. The North American Numbering Plan gave out the numbers, one exchange at a time. An exchange was a package of 10,000 phone numbers, and you had to take them all, even if you didn't have enough customers.

This was necessary, according to Conners, because the phone company's switching equipment required the first six digits--the area code and the exchange--to identify the billing and routing of a call. It could not further subdivide the number without causing chaos. Unfortunately, this also resulted in many unused numbers. Millions of unused numbers. Conners talks of this as though it were inevitable.

This is like a supermarket selling marshmallows only in 40-pound bags and then lamenting that there are a lot of stale marshmallows out there in people's homes.

Moreover, every state was entitled to its own area code, even though many states have nowhere near the demand for the 7.92 million telephones possible under one area code. Wyoming, for example, has 450,000 people. Its area code, 307, has millions of phone numbers lying fallow.

No one knows how many unused numbers there are, Conners admits; some estimates suggest there are as many unused as used.

Conners mentions that he has heard talk that someday we will each have only one phone number, a global phone number that follows you wherever you are: in your car, or your office, or your home, tracked by satellite, administered "by a database in Geneva or whatever." He says he is not in favor of this.

He is not?

"I think people at some point will need their privacy. They will say, 'I don't want to be found.' "

Conners is silent for a moment. The former designer of antiballistic missile systems takes a lot of incoming flak these days.

"I used to have a full head of hair, before I entered the numbering business."

And suddenly Ronald Conners, Master of the Plan, seems like just another guy. A nice guy who happens to look like Lyn Nofziger and administers the bureaucracy that is dragging a nation of cantankerous techno-junkies into a future they demand.

It is filled with numbers.

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