Why are we still using Phone Numbers?

Often if you take a logic-based critical look at something that society has long taken for granted, you might see that it really doesn’t make sense in modern society.  It may have made sense many years, or decades, or centuries ago, but it clearly doesn’t make any sense today. Usually the reason we still do things that way is because that’s how we’ve always done it. In other words, we’re used to doing things stupidly and we’ve done things stupidly for so long, we don’t even realize it’s stupid.

For example, all humans currently measure time of day in a combination of base 12 and base 60 numbers.  Why not a base 10 measurement system for time like most countries use for distances, mass, volumes, etc.?  Why a combination of numbering systems instead of a single system??  Go ahead and look up the reason.  It’s kind of silly in the context of today’s society (hint: it involves counting the 12 bones in your four fingers on one hand and counting each set of 12 with the 5 fingers on your other hand).  Another example is the Fahrenheit scale for temperature which is based on someone who had a fever one time.  Another example is the way we divide the year into months.  Another example is daylight savings time.  Another example is the messy nonsensical structure of language. I could go on and on.

Using phone numbers for identification is stupid

Just about everyone today has at least one phone number that they can use to identify their phone account so that other people can call them.  It’s generally a string of 10 or 11 or more numbers that you have to type into another phone.  Today, we save these strings of numbers in the Contacts apps on each phone and associate them with an actual name of a person so that the numbers are easier to identify. That’s a phone-by-phone work-around that we’ve implemented because memorizing phone numbers for people kind of sucks.

Why did we start using phone numbers in the first place?

Originally, phone calls were made by speaking into the receiver of a phone (after cranking a magneto to alert the central office) where an actual person who’s job title was “operator” was on the other end and then you would ask that person to connect you to another particular person just by using that person’s name.  The operator was smart enough to know how to switch some wires around and route your call to the person who’s name you requested.

That actually sounds pretty good.  It’s almost the same as using any of the speech interface apps we have today.  Have you ever simply said, “Hey Google, Call mom on mobile” or “Hey Siri, Call Brandon Miniman at work”?  That works pretty well, right?  Using names and relationships to identify people?  Who would have thought?

Well, in the 1910’s a company called Western Electric developed a system of dialing numbers to automatically route phone calls between phone receivers.  The reason it was called dialing is because it used a big dial with holes in it for different numbers.  You put a finger in a hole corresponding to the number, spun it around, and the dial would spin back using a spring and send that number of clicks ( or electromechanical pulses) to the routing center on the other end of the wire.  After the first number of clicks was sent, you’d repeat the dial spin for the next number of clicks.  Machines in the central office would receive the series of electromechanical pulses generated from those clicks that you dialed and then automatically connect you to the other phone you dialed, thus making the bell on the other end ring in order to notify the people to answer it.

In the 1980’s relying on those sequence of clicks to “dial” a phone number was replaced by dual-tone multi-frequency signaling, where each number was assigned a specific sound. This technology was often referred to as “touch-tone” dialing and it was able to use buttons on a phone instead of a dial with springs and clicks.  The central office on the other end of the wire detected the sounds that came from pressing the number buttons on your phone and then routed the call accordingly.  In the late 1990’s it was possible to install a DTMF app on your personal digital assistant pocket computer that would automatically play the sequence of tones required to call a person selected in your PDA’s address book.

The system of numbers for switching your connection to different phones had a pretty logical structure at one time too.  It was based on locations.  So the first set of numbers represented the country, the next three numbers represented the “area code” which was often the size of a county, then the next three numbers represented another area that was usually the size of a town, and then the last 4 digits represented your actual phone.  It was important to divide phone numbers into locations and sub-locations because each central office needed to know which other central-office it needed to switch the wires to. Sometimes these area code numbers had to change too!  If too many people got phones in one area, the phone company would run out of numbers and would have to make a new area code and change all the numbers where certain groups of people lived. Can you imagine?!  Even when phone numbers did make sense, they still weren’t very good for accommodating communications for everyone! Today, we’re actually reaching the limits of 10 digit numbers, too as Japan is running out of unique numbers!

Of course, with the rise of cell phones, locations didn’t really matter anymore, but the carrier you bought your phone from did.  For a long time, if you bought your mobile phone service from a specific company like AT&T, you would not be able to keep that number if you wanted to change to a competing service provider.  Yeah, that’s not very freedom-friendly and kind of anti-competitive, right?  Luckily, in 2003 we got some new phone number portability laws & capabilities. Today most countries and service providers support mobile number portability so that you can keep your phone number no matter where you go.

Uh, but we have the internet now.

The internet has greatly surpassed all of the functionality that the old telephone networks once provided. What’s more is all of the telephone network service providers ALSO provide internet service.  So we’re maintaining two networks… one for voice calls and text messages (that only works through your carrier)… and one for internet data (which is advanced enough to support transferring voice and text and even video calls between devices… and works across a global standard network and also works on everything we use the old phone networks for).  Do we really still need both when the internet does everything and does everything better?

There are actually a lot of hacks that make phone network services work over the internet.  VoIP means “Voice over Internet Protocol” which can absolutely replace legacy telephone systems. Often we add phone numbers to VoIP devices so that other systems can “dial” them, but there’s no need for those. We can use actual people names and domain names to represent VoIP user accounts.  Large businesses often use internet-protocol phones instead of phone-network phones because you can control them internally with your own server software just like you can with email, file sharing, intranet websites, applications, etc.

Many carriers have started using their internet networks for phone services too.  VoLTE stands for “Voice over Long Term Evolution”.  LTE is a wireless internet protocol that most phones use these days to access the internet. We can use that to transfer voice communications… yet we still use “phone numbers” based on a number of clicks in a rotating spring-loaded dial to route those calls.  Does that make sense?  Not really!

The internet uses names.

Okay, yes, you’re right… the internet uses IP (Internet Protocol) numbers to identify connection points too, kind of like our aging phone systems do, but it’s still way better…  we have much more control!

First of all, we’ve also got Domain Name Servers on the internet.  Unless someone else already registered it, you can register a name like “Google.com” and make that point to any IP address you want to.  You don’t have to be a phone company to do this either.  Anyone with $10-$20 and an internet connection can get a domain name.

Secondly, the 12 digit IP addresses that we normally use as part of IPv4 could quite possible run out just like regular phone numbers will in Japan, but we already have a solution.  IPv6 is a newer way of defining internet protocol addresses that was started in 1998 and became a standard in 2017.  This type of addressing uses 128-bits so that we can get about 3.4×1038 addresses which is a lot more than the 4.3 billion addresses we’ll get from the 32-bit IPv4 addressing method.

This is what you sound like when you give someone your number.

Your IP addresses don’t really matter from a user perspective though since you can register a domain name with any number of subdomains that can represent any number of internet protocol addresses. Any of those can be assigned to your website, your video calling server, your electronic messaging server, etc.  You can host each one of those yourself or you can pay a cloud service to host them or mix and match.  It’s a much smarter way of identifying things on the internet and it’s a much more flexible method as well.

Would you rather type in “Google.com” or “”?  See?  Using names is so much easier!  So why are we still using 1.800.555.1212 for phone calls and text messages?!

There are better ways to do this.

We could be a lot smarter about voice & video & text communications these days

We’re already using the Domain Name System to route just about all internet traffic… that means websites, emails, instant messengers, video games, desktop programs, operating system updates, internet of things appliance connections, streaming TV services/boxes, and almost every single app you can download on your phones, tablets, and PCs.  Yet, phone calls (and text messages) still depend on centralized proprietary phone company networks for some reason.

Of course it’s possible to make voice calls work through internet protocols… and electronic text-based messaging has always worked through the internet (it’s called email).  So why don’t we use DNS for everything?  Perhaps the phone companies think that it’s necessary for keeping their customers locked in?  We would still have to pay them for wireless internet access via LTE or 5G though, so that doesn’t make sense.

When it comes to video calling there is no standard that federates with all phone systems at the moment.  Moving to DNS for phone calls would open up the opportunity to add a standard for video calling on top of that.  It could work the same as email where as we simply have a DNS record associated with our domain that points to the email server… we could have another one that points to the voice/video calling server.  Or better yet, we could have a single standard internet protocol that can handle voice calls, video calls, and electronic messaging that includes voice/video mail all in the same way.

An open decentralized protocol like that would turn most of the phone companies’ infrastructure into simple internet access providers. They should also offer their customers standard interpersonal communications server hosting included with each plan… BUT it would open up many opportunities for competition and that could be a very good thing.  It would probably also reduce costs for the phone companies since routing everything over the internet pipes would reduce the need to maintain a second network for legacy telephony functions.

If we had a standard interpersonal communications protocol, anyone with the know-how could open up a small business for hosting personal communications services… or large businesses could install their own communications servers in order to lock down their security (some already do this using proprietary VoIP systems like Skype for Business Server)… or you could install your own servers at home in order to manage things yourself, maintain freedom, and reduce costs. We can already do all of that with other internet protocols like email, XMPP instant messaging, Matrix protocol instant messaging, IRC, websites, FTP, etc.  Why not phone calls?

Actually, the other day I spent 2 hours programming my own video calling service that friends can access using a URL to a web app.  It works over the WebRTC standard using the open-source Jitsi Meet video conferencing software.  I’m not even a good programmer, but it works great!  (I wrote my own notification system for it using Classic ASP of all things.)  My friends can access it by tapping the URL that I made with my Domain Name Server which I can send them via email or any other electronic messaging service or all of them. They can save that URL as a web-app and have one-tap calling access to me over the internet.  It doesn’t have a phone number and there’s no reason for it to.  It can stream the video/voice calls over any internet connection as well and doesn’t require anyone to have an actual phone or carrier account. That’s how things should be!

A gazillion messaging apps

Speaking of stupid ways to do voice/video/text messaging communications, you probably already have a gazillion instant messaging apps that already use the internet to transfer voice, video, and text-based communications between people.  Have you used Whatsapp, Viber, Skype, Facebook Messenger, Instagram direct messages, Telegram, Signal, Facetime, WeChat, Discord, Snapchat, etc.?  None of those really need a phone to work since they all use the internet to transfer data. They don’t “need” a phone number of a phone carrier account.  The problem is that a lot of them REQUIRE a phone number to create an account.  Yeah, it’s kind of ridiculous. A lot of these companies are using phone company phone numbers as your user ID.  This, of course, doesn’t make any sense since we’ve been moving towards a decentralized internet-centric communications network very quickly over the past 20 years. One reason they do this is to be able to match you with other people in your contacts list. Another is to be able to keep track of what you do elsewhere since your phone number is also attached to your bank accounts, social networks, etc.

These gazillion instant messaging apps don’t federate with each other at all either!  Well, the Matrix protocol and XMPP do, but you’ve never heard of those.  Whatsapp users can’t call Signal users.  Facebook messenger users can’t call Instagram users. Facetime users can’t call anyone without an Apple product. These centralized walled garden (potentially corrupt) monarchies are exactly what the democratic internet was supposed to avoid.

Controlling robo calls

If phone calls were to use DNS servers that pointed to Video/Voice over IP servers, we could have much more control over what calls are allowed to make our phones ring.  With an email server, I can make any number of email addresses I want to and give them out to different types of people or services.  I can use adam+facebook@domain.com for my Facebook account.  I can use adam+ebay@domain.com for my Ebay account.  You get the idea.  This way, I can control which incoming emails are getting sold and shared with other marketers. I can also control which incoming emails get sorted into sub folders or which ones get priority notification flags and sound alerts.  I can load community-made real-time block lists and automatically block email servers that are known to be malicious or spammers.

If only we could filter and process phone calls as well as we could emails!

You can’t do any of that with phone calls or text messages!  You get one phone number to share with people and you have no way of controlling who can use it, who can’t, or where the calls get routed. It’s kind of embarrassing how poorly managed phone calls are these days.  Plus, since robo callers only need a series of numbers to make calls, all they have to do is generate calls based on random number sequences and many of them will probably go through to real phones. It’s really easy to spam phone numbers and individual users have practically no control over that!

How things should work

Interpersonal voice, video, and text messaging SHOULD use the internet’s global domain name system by now. When you sign up for a wireless internet account, you should be able to choose a username address such as “adam@tmobile.net” or “joe@verizon.net” or it can be “@Adam:Tmobile.net” like the Matrix protocol uses…  the formatting doesn’t matter as long as it’s standard and consistent…  and then we can use that as your identifier for voice, video, and text calls.  (Actually, just aboue every cell phone account does have an email address like that, but it’s only used to convert emails to SMS/MMS messages.)  The carrier should be the internet provider and the default host for voice/video/text communications servers.  However, every user SHOULD also be able to attach any other voice/video/text communications accounts to that same internet-connected device using the same software used to connect to the carrier-provided account.  This is how email works and this is how all voice/video/text communications should work.  My business should have the freedom to create our own voice/video/text communications servers that uses our own domain and can be added to any internet-connected device.  I should have the freedom to use my personal T-Mobile voice & video calling account on my home’s cable internet or any other WiFi network with any other internet-connected device anywhere in the world that I can get internet access (and without having to use specific hardware).  I should have the freedom to build my own voice/video/text communications server with my own domain and whatever usernames I want, make it federate via the Domain Name System, and have standard, global communications access to everyone else on the domain name system. The potential is huge!

Maybe the phone companies don’t want competition

Maybe that’s why we’re still using phone numbers!  If we used DNS for video calls, voice calls, and messaging the same way we already use it for email and websites, then that takes some of the control away from the phone companies and puts more control into the hands of the consumers. With a DNS based system for communications, you don’t have to pay your phone carrier for roaming charges when you travel to other countries, you simply pay whatever local internet access company there is and you get the same connection to the internet that you would have anywhere else. You would have much less dependency on a single phone company, since… if everything just worked through the internet… you would only need to buy internet access from somewhere… or even simply find a cafe or hotel lobby with free internet. Although for security reasons, you’d probably want to route things through a VPN, but, hey… why not make that a paid service at the cell phone company? We could call T-Mobile and ask them to turn on Virtual Private Network encrypted routing along with International Data Roaming and have everything protected while travelling.

Backwards Compatibility

I suppose the only logical reason that we’re still using phone numbers is for backwards compatibility with people who are still using rotary phones and touch tone dial phones with ancient land lines.  In those cases, how difficult would it be to replace phone number dialing, with a voice-recognition computer on the other end?  I mean, we have that type of software built into every mobile cell phone in existence right now.  What’s so difficult about putting a computer on the other end of the plain old phone line that starts recognizing your commands as soon as you pick up the receiver kind of like switchboard operators did 100 years ago?  You could use a phone company account management web page to manage things like contact names/addresses, and caller permissions.  After that’s set up, my grandmother should be able to simply pick the phone up off the hook and say, “Call Adam” at which point the software could route that voice call over the domain name servers and send the notification to all of my devices that I have my personal voice calling account set up on.

For text messaging, there are already numerous ways to upgrade that. SMS/MMS have had email gateways for many years/decades. SMS can send to email and vice versa on just about all carriers (though it’s poorly supported on some such as Verizon). There are also SMS bridges for more modern protocols like Matrix. It should be easy to set up gateways/bridges on the carrier’s server for SMS message backwards compatibility. Instead they’re moving to a new messaging protocol that they can monopolize.

Is there any logical reason that we’re still using phone numbers based on a sequence of spring loaded dial clicks?


Originally published Nov 6, 2019:

Why are we still using phone numbers? | Pocketnow (archive.org)

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