When telephones were new, you told the operator who you wanted to talk to and they would connect you. As the number of users grew, phone exchanges were created. These typically contained the first two letters of the town you were calling, followed by a number within that exchange. Time wore on and there was no way a human operator could manage the explosion of phone numbers, so area codes were developed to help compartmentalize things. After several decades, the operators have all but disappeared, replaced first by massive banks of relays, and more recently
When telephones were new, you told the operator who you wanted to talk to and they would connect you. As the number of users grew, phone exchanges were created. These typically contained the first two letters of the town you were calling, followed by a number within that exchange. Time wore on and there was no way a human operator could manage the explosion of phone numbers, so area codes were developed to help compartmentalize things. After several decades, the operators have all but disappeared, replaced first by massive banks of relays, and more recently by complex networks of computers. Along the way we’ve gone from phones in static locations to phones that go where we go. So the question arises: is it time to deem area codes obsolete?
My state is one of the remaining few that has only one area code. Soon it will be split. Lawmakers are debating whether to split geographically, by phone type (cell vs everything else), or some other combination. Much depends on this as business and/or individuals throughout the state will have to officially change their phone numbers with a myriad of federal, state, and local government agencies, as well as with friends, family, merchants, banks, credit card companies, etc. It’s a nightmare that’s been exercised in many other areas, some more than once. Does it really need to be this way? I don’t think so. I think the time has come to declare the area code system obsolete.
I don’t make this suggestion lightly. Area codes do still locate phones in a geographic area. For people with unlimited local calling, who which to avoid long distance charges, this is very important. Or so it seems. Isn’t unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling the same thing? And this isn’t limited to your little corner of the country, but throughout the service area. Clearly the problem is more cultural than technical. This is actually evidenced from some of the area code splits in the past where people do whatever they can to maintain an area code with cachet.
So, here’s what I propose. Let people hang on to their current ten-digit numbers. All new numbers will be randomly assigned from the pool of available numbers. Over time, phone numbers will migrate and the old region specificity will dilute. All phone access will have caller ID available, with an added symbol that providers attach to indicate special plans (such as local or mobile-to-mobile), as well as a locale code (USPS state code would work) to indicate caller location. Ten-digit numbers will be standard–which should actually start making things easier—right now, within my area code, I can dial a seven-digit local number, a ten-digit regional number, or an eleven-digit long distance number (country code + ten-digit number). Honestly, I get this scheme screwed up about half the time. Just going straight ten digits would easier (though as short-term memory only holds about seven items before overflow, remembering ten-digit phone numbers might be problematic).
And while I’m here, I think there should be a more equitable structure for mobile and wired phones. Wired phones pay nothing for received calls, while mobile phones are metered at both ends of the conversation. When cell phones weren’t quite so ubiquitous, this inequality was still unfair, but somewhat reasonable. Now it just plain doesn’t make sense. I’m of the view that the recipient of a call should not be charged—they have no direct control of incoming calls. On the other hand, I don’t see that doubling the access charge to call initiators is helpful, either.
I don’t really have a good solution yet so that someone isn’t unduly burdened. The communications companies have spent tons of money developing and maintaining the infrastructure, and it isn’t reasonable to "stick it to the man", but neither should the public be slammed. It’s a tricky thing. It might be that the best solution is a flat general access fee (unlimited voice both ways) with add-ons provided by the phone companies. Perhaps, as the technology becomes less expensive to install, implement, and maintain, then the concept of per minute fees will be thought of as being as obsolete as area codes.