Canadian Commentary: Economics

Postscript: Jan. 2001 - If you live in Toronto, you know that the following article was too little, too late - we are stuck with 10-digit dialling. It turns out that the whole arrangement had been quietly stitched up by the phone companies and the CRTC three years before I wrote this article. So every time you dial those extra three numbers, remember, it's completely unnecessary, the phone companies are doing it for their own convenience, and your government just let it happen.

Calling Toronto

June 2000

If you live in Toronto, the phone companies are currenly plotting to make your life miserable.

They are planning to introduce a new area code to Toronto, and starting in 2001, all new phone numbers will have this new area code. No, they will not be separated by geography, function, type of phone or anything else. EVERY TIME you phone anyone in your own city, you will have to dial 10 numbers from now on. Yes, it will force you to re-set your speed dial, and in some cases it will mess up your phone system and force you to buy new equipment. Yes, it will be extremely inconvenient and will generally detract from your quality of life for the foreseeable future. And yes, it is in fact unneccessary and being done for the convenience of the phone companies at the expense of their customers.

The excuse is that, supposedly, Toronto - the 416 area code - is running out of phone numbers. According to the phone companies, the explosion in fax lines, dedicated internet lines, and especially cell phones means that the available numbers are being used up rapidly, and we will soon run out. There is no convenient geographical separation within Toronto, so they are simply going to introduce a new "area" code (without an actual area) to double the available numbers.

Let's look at this claim. By my rough calculation, there are no more than 1.5 million phone numbers listed in the phone book. Even if we generously assume that there are twice as many again unlisted numbers, fax lines, internet lines and cell phones (that's an average of 3 lines for every household and business in Toronto), we still get no more than 5 million phone numbers - out of a possible 8 million numbers (since phone numbers can't start with 0 or 1). So there should still be plenty of numbers to go around. Furthermore, since Toronto is already well-developed, the number of households and businesses in Toronto isn't increasing at the rapid pace of suburban towns. So why the shortage of numbers?

Part of the answer is that phone numbers are assigned to telephone companies in large blocks, 10,000 at a time. Even if the phone company only uses a fraction of the numbers assigned to it in a given area, all of these numbers are considered "taken". If the phone companies assigned smaller blocks of numbers - say, 1,000 at a time - a significant block of phone numbers would be freed up. But, of course, it would cost the phone companies more time and money to administer smaller blocks of phone numbers - and it's easier for them to pass the inconvenience on to the customer.

But is would this just be a temporary solution? What about the explosion of internet and fax lines? In fact, the number of dedicated internet lines is likely to decline over the next five years. The new high-speed internet connections, whether cable, phone or satellite, do not require a dedicated phone line (high-speed phone lines can be used simultaneously for voice and internet). As more and more people switch from dial-up connections to high-speed connections, they will no longer need their dedicated internet lines, freeing up the numbers for other purposes. The same is true of faxes - once a customer has a permanent high-speed internet connection, they can use their computer to receive and print out faxes, removing the need for a dedicated fax line. So, over the next five years, internet and fax lines will no longer be putting serious pressure on the number of available phone numbers.

Finally, there is the question of cell phones. There is no doubt that the use of cell phones and to a lesser extent pagers will increase exponentially over the next decade. But if it is cell phones that are causing the problem, why not organize the solution around cell phones? WHY NOT ASSIGN THE NEW AREA CODE TO ALL CELL PHONES AND PAGERS? Everyone always knows when they are phoning someone's cell phone or pager - it would be easy to simply remember that you had to add a separate area code when you were doing so. In fact, when cell phones first came on the market, I was kind of surprised they didn't have their own code right from the beginning - but I guess phone companies don't think ahead. It would also be extremely easy for the phone companies to administer, because all of the cell phone and pager service providers are distinct subsidiaries or separate companies. The new area code would follow a logical structure, and it would be easy and convenient for the customers to remember and implement. And we wouldn't have to dial ten numbers every time we wanted to call someone's home or business.

So, there we have it - a simple, understandable solution to the problem. But we only have half a year to persuade the phone companies to take the trouble to actually think about the convenience of their customers. It has been done before - in Los Angeles, a customer revolt stopped a similar attempt to double up the city's area codes. But we have to act fast. Write to your MP - don't forget, you don't need postage to send a letter to the House of Commons - at: House of Commons, Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A6. Write to Mayor Mel at mayor_lastman@city.toronto.on.ca and to your local councillors (find out their addresses at http://www.city.toronto.on.ca/council/councillors.htm) - and don't forget they're up for re-election. And contact the CRTC (http://www.crtc.gc.ca/), which has jurisdiction over the phone companies. If you live in Montreal or Vancouver, you may want to join in as well, because if it happens in Toronto, you're next in line.

June 21, 2000

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