Saturday, September 17, 2016

Coded for Life

It's math of the newest kind. 212 is equal to 646. Sometimes it can be also be equal to 917. And all three will be equal to 332, but only starting in 2017. But we're not talking your regular addition and subtraction, nor some esoteric quantum branch of mathematics practiced by a bunch of geeks with slide-rule tie clips. We're talking about simple multiplication, as in how to double the number of phone numbers available in a given area.  

It's all part of the evolving master design that is the North American Numbering Plan or NANP. Created in the 1940's as a way of taming the unruly growth of the various parts of the Bell System, it divided the country into 86 Numbering Plan Areas, or NPAs, each of which were given an area code. Originally used by operators to connect to different central stations, the system evolved to make it usable for consumers. That was first demonstrated on November 10, 1951, when Mayor M. Leslie Denning of Englewood NJ dialed 10 digits, and 18 seconds later, Mayor Frank Osborne of Alameda CA answered the phone. According to the Associated Press, they talked about the marvel of it all and the weather, with Mayor Osborne closing the call by asking a question about which many on the west coast wondered: "Is it true the people in New Jersey ride mosquitoes the same as we ride horses out here?" Amid laughter, the reports said that Denning replied that he "hadn't been bitten in years."

All was well and good for more than 40 years. But then it started to get a little cozy at the inn. The growth in landlines, fax machines, computer modems and those new-fangled mobile phones started to crowd the system. And there's comes a time when you can no longer just add "1" to get a new number. And so in 1995, Alabama, a state not normally associated with hi tech, became ground zero in the telecommunications revolution. A new confederacy was started, when the southern half of the state withdrew from the north, or to be more accurate, was withdrawn. And where before all Crimson Tiders lived together harmoniously in 205, now half lived in area code 205 and half lived in 334.

As the need picked up, the pace picked up. Texas and Washington, Florida and Massachusetts all divided like so many amoebas. In New Jersey alone, there were three splits in two years. In 1997 the folks in New Brunswick, Rahway and the Jersey shore jumped their 908 ship for 732, while the 201's of Newark, Paterson and Morristown decamped for 973. And in 1999, some 609'ers set up shop as the 856's of Camden and Vineland.  

Realizing their had to be a better way than making people reprint their business cards over and over, a different approach was tried. A new area code could be overlaid on top of an old, allowing those original homesteaders to keep their numbers, while the new kids on the block would get a different address. That did mean that whereas before neighbors in a given area code could skip dialing those first three digits, overlaying necessitated "mandatory 10 digit dialing." You should send a "thank you" note to Silver Spring, Frederick and Cumberland Maryland residents for being the first to attempt this technological sleight-of-hand.

And that's where we are today. Add in the provision in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which allows you to take that 10-digit number to whatever company you choose, plus the fact that most new lines today are of the mobile variety, and you have a situation where you are area coded for life. Wherever you go, whatever mobile plan you sign up for, that number will work. You can have 914 if you move to Chicago, or 917 if you set up shop on LA. And while it might confuse the people you talk to, the system is designed to make it all work seamlessly.

Funny how we are told to safeguard so many numbers: social security, bank account, credit card. Yet at the same time we freely give out our phone numbers, when those are becoming the one clue that reliably tells people our origin. Yours is 732? A Jersey Boy at heart. You a 669? You're a Silicon Valley girl. It could put the NSA out of business.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is a 914 in spirit and fact. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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