We note with dismay that starting next February residents of New York City will need to dial 11 digits to make local telephone calls. On February 3, 2003, for example, it will no longer be possible to reach this newspaper by dialing 361-6161. Even someone calling from within the same area code will have to dial 1-718-361-6161.
State Senator Toby Stavisky points out that the change is necessary because the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees this sort of thing, requires a "uniform dialing practice" when more than one area code serves the same geographic area. New York City is now served by the 212, 718, 646, 347 and 917 area codes; therefore, a "uniform dialing practice" means that all numbers prefaced by one of these five area codes now require the full 11 digits to be dialed in order for the call to go through.
Stavisky suggests reprogramming numbers on speed dial phones, computers and fax machines, modems and additional lines in residences. She also would have those of us who use business stationery, business cards and other printed material change our phone numbers, alerting friends, family, business associates, suppliers and other colleagues to the change.
All these are practical suggestions and we appreciate them. But we question the necessity of their having to be made at all. Yes, the number of telephones and phone lines in use has increased exponentially and yes, there are only so many number combinations that can be used before the beleaguered telephone company runs out. But as we've said in this space before, it seems to us that surely there has to be a better way.
Why, for example, can't all the faxes operating in the five boroughs of New York City be assigned one area code and all the cellular telephones another? (Most of the latter use the 917 area code anyway.) This would have the added advantage of letting a caller know that one is dialing or receiving a call from a cell phone or a fax, information many people find useful, if not outright essential. If broadband lines were made more accessible and affordable more people would use them instead of a modem requiring an individual telephone number. And, most important in a city where many businesses have trunk internal telephone systems, make incoming calls automatically jump to an unused extension rather than be routed to a separate number, as is now the case. The result would be thousands of unused numbers released to general use.
In looking over Stavisky's list of suggestions to deal with the changeover, the thought comes to mind: reprogramming all those numbers into all those devices is time-consuming, tedious, tiresome work and will cost a lot of people a lot of money besides. Having to dial an 11-digit number instead of a seven-digit one increases the likelihood of a misdial. And while dialing four more digits may not seem to take much more time, a few seconds here and a few more there add up.
The telephone was patented in 1876. In the 126 years that followed, technology has been developed to make the act of person-to-person communication simpler, faster and easier. Forcing longer telephone numbers on a defenseless populace seems to us a giant leap backward.