Hackit: Why we don’t need phone numbers


We’re starting to think that phone numbers are deprecated; it may be time to integrate how we connect telephones with the new digital millennium. To get a firm grasp on this topic it is important to take a look at the reason we started using phone numbers, why we still use them, and the why’s and how’s of transitioning to a new system.

History of phone numbers

Telephone numbers started out as a way of physically addressing a telephone extension. Whether connected by an operator at a switchboard or through a magnetic exchange, each number corresponded to the hardware switch that connected the handset you were trying to ring. This originally started with named exchanges such as Pennsylvania-6-5000. The geographic location of the extension was  shown in the name and this system gradually transitioned over to area codes and prefixes.

Continued usage

The proliferation of cell phones means that numbers are no longer tied to a physical location but are routed to the nearest tower to which each wireless phone is currently connected. So why have we continued to use telephone numbers? Backwards compatibility is paramount. Cell phones overtook land lines years ago but there are still millions of people connected to the telephone companies’ wired networks. Most of the phones used on these land lines rely on the touch tone system to function. Even the advent of Voice over Internet Protocol implements the same system of connecting calls by dialing a number.

What works better than phone numbers?

How many different phone numbers does your family have? Many households have a home phone, a cell phone for each family member, and a work phone for each adult. What if all of these numbers were addressed similarly to how the Domain Name System works for internet addresses? Something like this:




This can be accomplished in the near future. All cell phones and many land line phones already have the ability to store numbers so that you only have to enter them once. Cell phones can already input web-style addresses and a firmware upgrade would allow for a new system of addressing and storing voice connection information. Service providers like Comcast and Charter are already providing phone service that utilizes VOIP, paving the way for dialing from your computer. For legacy hardware an inexpensive interface box similar to the digital cable converter boxes could be implemented. The new box would have a keyboard and character LCD and be rolled out in the same way that caller ID boxes were.


No one wants to change their telephone number and be in the position of trying to inform everyone who might ever call them. This is why laws were enacted to allow you to keep your telephone number if you change carriers. If each family owned their “voice domain”, changing carriers, cities, or even countries would be as simple as editing the domain registration. Transitioning to a new system of dynamically addressed telephone extensions is the next logical step in voice communications. Although it would be a change for billions of people, it is possible and worth taking a look at.

[photo credit Projekt Runeberg]

71 thoughts on “Hackit: Why we don’t need phone numbers

  1. @Matthew
    why do you need people to connect to a static IP when you can buy a domainname or use a free domain service like http://www.dyndns.com?
    Static IP’s are too tricky to have globally, it will be abused by people in power and hackers and to block you and track you with 100% certainty.

  2. Having your own or family dns is important, but it seems to be a heavyweight approach. Being able to dial people by more than their phone number is useful. Seems like phone companies should just provide better dialers built in. Support DNS, openid, jabber, email, gvoice, skype, ….. we’ll help them out by providing mappings or deleting mappings.

  3. Wwhat: “Static IP’s are too tricky to have globally, it will be abused by people in power and hackers and to block you and track you with 100% certainty.”

    Comcast customers in my town who leave their modem on 24/7 will be assigned the same globally routable IP address for *years*.
    I really don’t think that you have any idea of what you’re talking about, hoss.

  4. Remember that numbers are running out. That’s why Area codes split. We are goingo to have to change it eventually, but if we get the ball rolling soon, then it will never have to be a sudden change. Look at the analog broadcast cutoff. It was a change that was made 20 years ago that allowed it to be a smooth gradual change over for most Americans.
    Imaging if we didn’t already have digital TV when that happened.

  5. phone://911.us still longer than 911, by a long shot actually, 366% :).

    Now do you want to be trying to type out phone://911.us on a keypad while you’re bleeding out behind the wheel of your car because some moron in the interstate slammed into the side of you during a lane change and created a 10 car pile up? :)…

    I know I wouldn’t.

  6. What about folks with the same name? I mean, how many John Smiths do you think are out there? And instead of getting a wrong number, how many people will want to say, “I’m sorry; must have the wrong URL.”

  7. With respect, you obviously don’t know very much about phone networks, call routing or the outside world.

    There is a very large international network of phones in place around the world – and they are not all digital yet.
    Copper is still the ‘last mile’ for most of the world’s phones, and shared telephone line – common carries etc still exists, even in countries with an otherwise moderns digital phone system.
    Many places still rely on R2 phone signalling etc… should we just cut off these countries from the rest of the world because of some perceived need to replace phone numbers. Any phone in the world can be contacted with a Max of 12 digits – and you want to replace that with an IP6 addresss (that’s what is would take)
    Many important phone numbers are still location dependent.
    In the USA dialing 911 will get you the LOCAL emergency services- not some call center in India who will then ask you what country/city/street you are in etc.
    Even when you are on a cell phone, it will quickly route you locally, because it’s important.

    Phone numbers allow for short codes, if its a local call just dial 555-1234 , different city ring (212) 555 1212.

    Many countries outside the USA have local phone numbers of 4 and 5 digits only. Countries will smaller populations have 3 digit country codes – and the first digit of a country code tells you the geographic area it’s in.

    The first comment posted was correct- this is yet another solutions, looking for a problem.

  8. It would be nice to have the option of dialing by an alternative means ie. an URL if the provider chooses to provide it.
    Cellphone users currently have a personal DNS system, a phone book on your phone:
    search> “john doe”> call

  9. Many ideas touched upon here. Sounds like
    each individual at birth will receive a
    universal communication number unique to
    the individual which can be appended to add
    a unique suffix for each device/location
    a persons uses for communication. The IPhone
    is doing this now for the most part – it is
    a universal communication device, access
    email, web, phone, chats, IM etc. all from
    one device. We say that we are all going to
    have multiple calling locations, but in the
    end, I think location will be superfluous,
    because all our calling networks will
    eventually be wireless. Of course, if some
    eh hmmm, “gov’t agency” is going to hand out
    a unique communications number for each
    individual at birth, I sure bet that that
    same gov’t agency will keep tabs on each
    and every communication you make. It’s a
    nice concept, but it makes me worry about
    big brothers usurpous power. Also, who
    actually dials a phone number anymore? My
    guess businesses are the only real users
    of phone numbers anymore, where as private
    citizens program their home or cell phones
    once with a bookmark, and just dial by
    pressing one button on the phone, or hell,
    some phones even have voice activated
    dialing. So, to the end private user,
    the actual phone number is used once as a
    means to an end to create a bookmark.
    How cool is that?! So, since the end users
    essentially no longer need a 7 or 10 digit
    number to dial anymore, then conceivably,
    the telecommunication companies can change
    the user IDs to anything they want, what
    does it matter to the end user who just
    creates a bookmark.

  10. Hey, looking for a hack to lookup unlisted
    numbers without paying for it. Tired of
    people calling and asking for Jim Smith,
    when my name is John smith. (not my real
    name of course). Then I do a *69 (cause I
    am still in the dark ages and do not have
    caller ID), get the number, do a reverse
    phone lookup on some whitepages website,
    only to find out the general city location
    of the call, but not the actual caller info.
    Sometimes I get the phone carrier, but who
    cares. So, I need a free way to lookup
    unlisted numbers so I can tell whether it
    is a prankster, telemarketer, or maybe an
    old friend I lost touch with who might be
    calling me.

  11. Seven digits is the highest average sequence of numbers that a average person can easily memorize also the average phone number without a a area code or extension is seven numbers. This is obviously a coincidence and not relevant.

  12. The problem I see with this approach is that it completely locks out the non-Latin character set world. They recently approved non-Latin domains, but trying to standardize a similar approach for this phone DNS would be a huge headache.

    I work for a local telco and while the SIP protocol is very good for VOIP phones, applying this same solution to POTS phones would require some hardware changes to link the “address” with the specific copper-loop circuit for a given phone. You would effectively have to treat the POTS phone as a modem, but for voice instead, at the central office.

    Having a unique phone number is a far better solution than a text-based addressing system for all phones, because of name collisions. Without some location or ISP based gobbledigook that would assure people with the same name wouldn’t collide, a name-based addressing system for phones just plain won’t work. In fact with a location or ISP based “subdomain” sort of fix, you’d probably still have name collisions (especially in population-dense areas) so you’d still need a unique number to assure that you’re getting the right “John Smith” in NYC.

  13. it already exists: you know those 1800 numbers, where the letters on the numeric pad form words, like “1800 donuts” or whatnot. It doesn’t need to be a 1800 number, my number (without country code or area code) spells “wet fowls” (or yev enyks). Done.

  14. It’s all numbers in the end – ie, binary, octal, hex, or decimal address locations.
    Assign whatever mnemonic you like. I have yet to see a system that actually “maps” alpha-numerically, but there are lots of systems like domain servers/names that convert alpha-numerics to their numeric addresses.

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