Sorry, phone number, but it’s time for you to die

Note: This article first appeared in The Loop Magazine Issue 17.

867-5309. 911. And… that’s about it. Those two seemingly random strings of digits just so happen to be phone numbers.

One is the emergency line for U.S. citizens, established as a public service to be rung in times of utter distress. The other is best known for being the hook in a Tommy Tutone jam. For all of the technologies that have come, served their time, and went, the antediluvian phone number remains—clinging to life much like a zombie that refuses to remain planted in its grave. Unlike Sony’s MiniDisc, SanDisk’s slotRadio, and Palm’s webOS, the phone number has few meaningful supporters. In fact, it’s easily one of the most complicated and frustrating beacons of communication in the world today, but it’s hanging on for one primary reason: ubiquity.

As they say, old habits die hard, and well-rooted trees require the most effort to poison. The telephone number has served us well. Despite the need for country codes, phone numbers are generally universal, and can be used to connect humans in faraway lands (assuming they’re kosher with the roaming rates, which I’ll touch on in a bit). It’s a protocol that’s supported by every single phone, from dirt cheap to obscenely expensive, and it’s the only number that you can give someone without any doubt that they’ll understand how to use it to contact you. But let’s be honest: the phone number has done absolutely nothing for you lately.

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In fact, it’s probably causing you all sorts of grief. What was once a universally accepted standard now feels tremendously limited. For starters, dialing any number outside of your own country involves fees—fees which seem thoroughly absurd in an age where the internet has enabled limitless communication without borders. The cost of making a simplistic voice call has been driven to zero by the likes of Google Voice, Skype, Apple’s FaceTime Audio, Facebook, Viber, and countless others. Even outfits notorious for bilking customers for all that they’re worth (yes, I’m looking your way, mobile carriers of the United States) have given up on the scheme—these days, you get unlimited calling if you pony up for a data plan.

The mere notion of paying to call someone now seems ludicrous. And yet, the phone number lives on.

The upside is that we’re making progress. Facebook’s own Messenger app is slowly but surely becoming one that’ll enable non-Facebook users to input a phone number and forget it, forever using a converted identifier and whatever data connection you can find in order to pass along snippets of text. I’d surmise that voice conversations won’t be far behind. The downside is that the default action for consumers—even technophiles such as myself—is to pass along one’s phone number first, followed by far more fluid tokens such as an email address, a Twitter handle, or a Facebook username. If ever we hope to fully kill the phone number, we’re going to have to make a concerted effort as a society to stop relying on it first and foremost.

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My proposal is a simple one from a conceptual standpoint, but one that faces huge challenges due to the monolithic corporations who hold the power to make the necessary changes. When 5G (or whatever happens after LTE) is fully in place, there’s really no reason to not build the networks to transmit all voice calls over data. Today’s networks may not be fully capable of handling every single voice call in VoIP fashion, but bandwidth is going to be far less of an issue once LTE has been eclipsed. It’s already possible for me to ring a conventional phone number from my web browser thanks to a Google Voice plug-in; as far as the receiver of that call knows, I’m calling from a landline. The technology is already here, but unless mobile operators and network infrastructure outfits jointly decide to make the leap to VoIP for everything, we’re going to remain shackled to an ancient technology.

It doesn’t take an argonaut to understand the benefits of using a different identifier and an internet-based calling platform. Today, a U.S. citizen that travels to England can buy a SIM card in a vending machine upon landing, load it up with data, and effectively use their smartphone exactly as they would in the United States… save for the whole “calling and texting” thing. When you swap the SIM out, your phone number goes dead for the duration of your trip. But why? That new SIM is fully capable of channeling voice calls to your phone via data networks—the only thing we need is implementation.

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Why shouldn’t you be able to complete a call using any device tethered to a data connection? A laptop or tablet with a set of headphones seems like a perfectly acceptable way to communicate, but as it stands, the phone number won’t have any of it.

Out society is too large, and far too set in their ways, for anyone to expect the masses to take meaningful action to change our dependence on the traditional phone number. But if we try, we might be able to pressure mobile carriers into considering a VoIP future that at least enables numbers to be ported amongst data-enabled devices.

As with practically everything related to the expansion of internet availability, one shouldn’t underestimate the economic impact that such a change could have. Roaming charges are hurdles for even the affluent amongst us; in a developing nation, they’re outright insurmountable. The thought of a world where every phone could call another, anywhere in the world, using a data network that pays no mind to long distance fees—that’s a thought that thrills me.

Darren Murph Bio:

Darren has roamed the consumer electronics landscape for nearly a decade, most recently serving as Engadget’s Managing Editor and now as SVP of Editorial Strategy for Weber Shandwick. He owns a Guinness World Record as the planet’s most prolific professional blogger, and believes that there’s no such thing as too much travel.

Darren’s Twiiter



  • WCJay

    Is that Copenhagen in the first photo?

    • http://www.linkedin.com/in/darrenmurph Darren Murph

      Wow, super late here — apologies! Yes, that’s Copenhagen. Love Denmark!

  • Sigivald

    When 5G (or whatever happens after LTE) is fully in place, there’s really no reason to not build the networks to transmit all voice calls over data.

    4G networks, from all I can find, already do all their voice traffic over IP.

    We don’t need to wait for 5G for that; it’s already here.

    • Ron Miller

      Some phone companies may, but I don’t think any in the US do yet. Verizon certainly doesn’t. However, this is not an LTE limitation, but instead a limitation of the cell phone companies’ networks. I’m hoping that when the phone companies finally start supporting voice over LTE, they’ll finally upgrade the audio quality at the same time.

      I prefer FaceTime audio to phone calls when calling another iPhone because the audio quality is SOOOO much better than what Verizon offers.

  • Joseph Blake

    LTE is more than capable of doing voice. Voice, at current crummy quality levels takes what, 16kbps or so? Maybe less?

    The problem is, what do you replace it with? All of the problems listed (mainly, international long distance) aren’t issues with phone numbers themselves, it’s a problem with interconnecting systems. So, you replace it with Facebook. OK, how do I call my boss, who doesn’t use Facebook? How do I call her office phone only? How do I call my grandparents who only have a landline? How do I call Domino’s Pizza at 1234 Main Street? How do I call emergency services? How do I call my buddy Jim who only uses Skype if I only use Facebook?

    A mish-mash of voice services that run over IP but aren’t tied into the PSTN numbering and interconnection system would be a nightmare. We still need universal ways to connect devices across providers. Phone numbers do that.

    What it seems Darren is arguing for is greater interconnection of countries’ phone systems via the Internet, but I’m not so sure putting the entire circuit switched phone system on the commodity Internet is A Good Idea(TM)

  • N8nnc

    A quibble: “The cost of making a simplistic voice call has been driven to zero by the likes of Google Voice, Skype, Apple’s FaceTime Audio, Facebook, Viber, and countless others.”

    No, these drove the price to zero. The cost has long been effectively zero. The cost to support the first call is fairly high, but the cost for the Nth call is zero.

  • SV650

    To echo Joseph Blake and N8nnc, the issue is not the phone number – it’s just a unique identifier, but the delivery system to which it is connected. Darren’s rant is mostly about the charges the network holders apply when interconnecting the PSTN between providers (i.e. long distance charges).

    The internet connections which are so praised in this article are neither free, nor cheap. You are paying a regular monthly fee for the privilege of having this connectedness, and when you travel, you not only continue to pay your connection at home, you often buy MORE connectivity when you travel! For most of us in the western world POTS is cheap. We can easily connect with our local friends, those with whom we most interact, for the minimum monthly connectivity fee, in many cases about $15 – $30 monthly, including the cost of the device which provides the connection. For those of us who wish to reach family, friends or acquaintances at greater distance, the add-on charges are fairly low, often less that the basic monthly cellular fee. I also receive calls from any of my circle of friends (or telemarketers) at no additional cost to me.

    A Google Voice call on the other hand has huge up-front costs. I need a device to connect, a (ad supported) subscription to a connectivity service, and an ongoing connection fee far in excess of my POTS line costs. In addition, Google is gathering information from that call which it can sell to others. Also, Darren, the return call from that landline you called to your GV number is not free. Most of the other connectivity options require the sender & recipient to be using the same tool out of many, and charge a fee for the last mile. With the PSTN, I don’t need to choose Viber, GV, FaceTime, Facebook, What’s App, BBM, Twitter, Skype, or any of a plethora of other tools, I can simply choose a readily available device, and a contacts management application as simple as a piece of paper, and reach the point of contact of the person I wish to reach. Depending on how connected THEY want to be, the number I call will reach them in some period of time. There are many tools available to the ‘owner’ of that phone number to maintain connectivity, from cell phones through call forwarding, to the simple answering machine. The use of a VoIP service provider can further widen the options.

    While roaming charges may appear insurmountable for users in developing nations, moving to a situation where they buy data instead is not a solution. Most such users would not encounter roaming situations, and buying the data plan to avoid the small roaming charges they would likely encounter would be far more expensive.

    I expect that email was the last barrier free communications tool. Other than a phone number, I can think of no other method of communication as straightforward. Any device with an email client or browser can send and receive emails.

    BTW, Darren’s twitter handle contains as many characters as his phone number has digits.

    • Joseph Blake

      Quite to the point, Google Voice is likely a big money loser as a purely stand alone business. It was almost out of business when Google bought it.

      Just like in the Netflix debate, too many people think that the internet is just a free love world of wires that everyone just connects to each other for free and that Equinix is a non-profit.

  • Scoop

    Hey ping me at my IP address will ya?

  • http://sambeal.com/ Sam Beal

    A great idea – like WhatsApp vs. SMS. There is no hard technical barrier but probably hard to change (like the inane Daylight Savings Time that English speaking Northern Hemisphere countries are addicted to)

  • kfreed

    Do you tech dorks ever consider the consequences of your actions or do you just not give a crap?

    FYI: Here’s what bandwidth.com VOIP accomplished today: absolute chaos:

    Apparently, a virtual army of scammers is using phone numbers registered with bandwidth.com VOIP, masking their identities via exploitation of bandwidth.com’s technology (or bandwidth.com is helping facilitate it?). There are plenty of complaints on the bandwidth.com Facebook page, including from the dentist’s office whose phone was hijacked thanks to bandwidth.com facilitating anonymous telemarketing/phone scamming: https://www.facebook.com/bandwidth?filter=2

    (I particularly like bandwidth.com’s generic responses to consumer complaints.)

    Here’s the article/video via Miami CBS Local: http://miami.cbslocal.com/2014/03/17/ft-lauderdale-dentist-claims-phone-number-was-hijacked/

    Bandwidth.com appears to be oblivious to consumer complaints.

    This is happening all across the country as well as in Canada. A Google search using the keywords “bandwidth.com calling and hanging up” produced a ton of results reporting complaints about numbers associated with bandwidth.com from area codes across the nation: http://search.aol.com/aol/search?s_it=topsearchbox.search&v_t=keyword_rollover&q=bandwidth.com+calling+and+hanging+up

    Threatening phone calls:

    According to complaints on various consumer complaint sites, this bandwidth.com associated phone number is impersonating law enforcement, the State Attorney General’s office, making false claims to people’s employers and verbally abusing people over the phone in order to get them to pony up to avoid nonexistent lawsuits: http://whocallsme.com/Phone-Number.aspx/7606248866

    This 707 area code phone number is also registered with bandwidth.com: http://www.whitepages.com/phone/1-760-282-4216

    *Scammers are using the number to impersonate law enforcement, attempting to “collect” on fake payday loans, threatening people with jail and lawsuits over loans they never took out, demanding personal financial information, having int heir possession the last four digits of recipients’ Social Security numbers, according to the complaints: http://800notes.com/Phone.aspx/1-760-2824216#p695387973788807460

    And the list goes on: https://www.google.com/#q=bandwidth.com+calling+and+hanging+up

    I started researching tonight… and why did I do that? We’ve been getting calls on our land line several times daily for several weeks now. They show up on caller ID as “out of area” (except that they’re calling from our area code). I never answer as I don’t recognize the number and anyone masking their identity isn’t getting the time of day from me, but my husband insists on answering the phone when they call. Whenever he answers, there is no response, just background noise. My husband called the numbers back last night and received messages indicating that the numbers are “not in service.”

    So tonight I looked up two of them. One of the numbers is listed as “unknown in Colorado” even though the caller is calling from my area code. The second one is listed as belonging to bandwidth.com, Colorado Springs, CO: http://www.whitepages.com/phone/1-719-325-8760

    I filed a complaint with the FCC this evening: https://esupport.fcc.gov/ccmsforms/form1088.action

    I’ve suggested to anyone registering complaints at the various consumer complaint sites receiving such calls to look up the numbers online thru Reverse Lookup White Pages and then report them to the FCC if being harassed with repeated calls that result in the caller simply hanging up/not responding.

    Otherwise, I am advising that consumers file a complaint with the FBI if the caller is making suspicious threats of legal action. Local law enforcement may also be contacted. And as this friendly dentist just showed us, contacting the local media is a good way to get the word out in addition to filing a complaint.

    Your “free market” at work:

    One person told the caller that they’re on the Do Not Call List (as others have done), claimed the caller said that “the DNC list is a government joke and our government is no more” – any guesses as to which anti-government US political faction is behind this despicable crap?: http://www.whitepages.com/phone/1-202-455-8888

    bandwidth.com, meanwhile, is fully cognizant of the fact that its fraudsters are breaking any number of laws and scamming countless innocent people, but what the hell, there’s a buck at stake. I’m by no means a Luddite, but I’m starting to develop a serious hate-on for the tech industry and the Libertarian douchebags who populate it.