Maybe you have, in a desk drawer somewhere, a stack of business cards wrapped in a rubber band with contact information that you’ve meant (for two decades) to put in a Rolodex, or on a personal digital device, or in a Word file at work, or on a mobile phone.
At this point, most of that information is likely out of date and you won’t be missing much if you toss the deck. But here’s a way to know which cards to safely discard. Look at the phone number. If it has just seven digits, pitch it.
It’s probably too soon to play another round of Spot the Generational Differences, having done so just last week with inflation and interest rates. But the evolution of telecommunications provides multiple opportunities to consider practices that were once standard but are now anachronistic, such as seven-digit dialing.
Time was, if the person whose business card you were holding was somewhere in Western Washington, you only needed seven digits to reach their phone. Everything was in the 206 area code (those, by the way, are officially known as numbering plan areas). The Cascades provided a convenient dividing line between 206 and 509, which covered the eastern half of the state.
But growth in households and businesses, the proliferation of multiple lines even in residences (one for the parents, one for the kids), the fax machine and then the car/cell/mobile phone threatened to eat up all the available numbers in 206. In 1995 the 360 area code arrived, encompassing just about everything north, south and west of the Puget Sound region. Two years later Tacoma got a 253 area code, while Bellevue-Redmond and the rest of the Eastside was assigned 425. You may find in that stack of business cards a few with an old area code (206) crossed out or a new one penciled in.
Even then, there was a sense that the seemingly insatiable appetite for numbers would exhaust supply. In 2000, the state Utilities and Transportation Commission approved a plan for a new area code that would overlay the existing Western Washington area codes. But thanks to what a UTC document calls “successful number conservation efforts” (we all remember those heart-tugging “save the phone number” ads), implementation was put off.
Later this year, phone companies will begin assigning numbers with a 564 area code, starting in the 360 area code which, the UTC order says, is closest to running out of numbers, as soon as 2018. (The 253 area code, by contrast, isn’t projected to exhaust the supply until 2046.)
But since someone living in what was formerly the same area code might now have a different area code, you’ll now have to dial 10 digits. Here’s how Verizon describes the roll-out schedule: “Beginning January 28, 2017, if you have a 206, 253, 360 or 425 area code, you should start entering the area code for all calls. There will be a grace period, so if you forget and enter just 7 digits during the grace period, your call will still be completed.
“Beginning July 29, 2017, if you have a 206, 253, 360 or 425 area code, the new calling procedure will be required for all calls. On or after this date, if you don’t use the new calling procedure, your call won’t be completed and a recording will instruct you to hang up and dial again.
“Beginning August 28, 2017, new telephone lines or services may be assigned numbers with the 564 area code. If you have a 564 area code, you must enter the area code and 7-digit phone number on all calls or the call won’t be completed.”
For many, this won’t qualify as news because they’ve been dialing with 10 digits already. In fact, many find themselves dealing with 11-digit dialing, even within the same area code, lest they invoke the dreaded “your call cannot be completed as dialed” admonishment.
That in turn raises another issue: What constitutes a long-distance call? How can you tell? The tip-off used to be easy. If you had to dial an area code, or a 1 in front of the number, you were paying extra.
With 10 or eleven or 15 or 20-digit dialing, the distinction between local and long-distance calls is blurred. Cellphone companies with national calling plans have further eroded the notion there’s such a difference.
At some point, those of us who still remember will have to explain to the younger generation the long-forgotten concept of the long-distance call — after we explain why punching buttons is called dialing.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.