Premium Telephone Numbers

4cb1f2dc96040One of my industry colleagues sent me an article that shows that there is a big market for premium telephone numbers. By that I mean that there are people willing to pay significant sums for numbers from ‘premium’ area codes, or numbers that they think give them a marketing advantage for some other reason.

The article I read interviewed the owner of PhoneNumberGuy.com. Ed Mance, who operates the business, got into it years ago when he opened up a new business and was unable to obtain a contiguous block of numbers for all of his new telephones. He spent years looking into telephone numbers and in doing so found that there are people and companies willing to pay a premium for certain numbers.

As an example, the old area codes for major cities, like 212 for New York City, 202 for Washington DC, and 415 for San Francisco have been full for years and new subscribers in those areas are given different area codes today when they get a landline or a cellphone. When new people enter these markets they often have a reason to want the old, nationally-recognized numbers, as opposed to the new, lesser-known codes. If you are a new DC attorney, or a tech person moving to San Francisco, then I am sure there is some cachet and advantage to having the older area codes. And there has always been a market for telephone numbers that translate to words such as 800-FLOWERS (I have no idea if that is a real number).

It’s the amounts that some numbers go for that I find intriguing. A regular number from one of the ‘old’ city area codes ranges from $299 to $799. But specialty numbers can go for a lot more. For example, the biggest sale quoted was a sale where all ten digits had the same number, which sold for $95,000.

One of the things our consulting firm does is to help service providers obtain telephone numbers. In order to get numbers from NANPA/Neustar (the company that controls telephone numbers) you must be a certified telephone company, a wireless company, or a CLEC. The whole process is highly regulated and has been designed by the carriers, under FCC oversight, to make sure that numbers are available to all carriers.

Ed Mance says that he gets numbers by buying them from companies that no longer use them. If so, he is violating industry rules because customers don’t ‘own’ their number, and so a company cannot really sell a number they are no longer using. A phone number is yours to use for as long as you keep paying for it, but when you stop using the number it is supposed to go back to the carriers that gave you the number originally. And ultimately all numbers belong to the folks who run the North American numbering plan. Unused or abandoned numbers are supposed to go back into the general pool of numbers that are available to all carriers.

I find it interesting that this underground economy for numbers exists. Certainly the idea of selling ‘vanity’ numbers started back with Ma Bell who would charge you a few dollars extra per month if you wanted to specify the number you wanted (and if it was available). But phone companies never tried to charge large fees of hundreds, or thousands of dollars for a number, partially because they never thought of it, but more because they were willing partners in the numbering process.

It’s possible that the number guy is actually getting his numbers from some carrier, and not directly from customers who are abandoning them. While there is no specific rule that I can find against such a practice, it still flies in the face of regulatory rules to charge a premium price for a commodity that came into your possession through an extremely regulated process. If you recall, just a few years ago we were worried as a country about running out of telephone numbers, and with the explosion of cell phones we might get to that point again. It just doesn’t feel right to think that there are businesses that are hoarding numbers, which is why the whole numbering administration was created – to make sure we would always have numbers available.

This could get worse. There is a petition at the FCC for VoIP providers to be able to get telephone numbers directly instead of having to go through a certified telephone carrier. If the FCC grants this petition we are liable to see a proliferation of these kinds of practices because some of the VoIP providers are a lot looser about following industry rules than regulated companies. Many of them largely ignore regulatory rules unless forced to follow them.

I’ve had a 202 cellphone number forever and I can’t imagine ever giving it up. So I can see the lure of wanting a number that people recognize. But part of me has to ask: in today’s world of cellphones and dialer apps, do people really care much what number they are calling – or if they even know what number they are calling? But obviously if somebody is willing to pay $95,000 for a number, then there must be somebody who cares. It wouldn’t be hard to find the guy who bought that number to ask him if it was worth it. There are only 7 possible such numbers in North America (can’t do it with 0, 1 or 8).

The North American Numbering Plan

Fuld-modell-frankfurtToday is another in the series of blogs that looks at the important developments in the history of the telecom industry as I look at the North American Numbering Plan (NANP). This may seem a  bit mundane, but it’s one of those things that has been done correctly and that has made it easy for the industry to grow and to adapt to changes quickly. NANP was originally operated directly by AT&T, but over time the administration was given first to Lockheed Martin and then to Neustar, which still administers it today.

The NANP was first devised in the 1940’s and introduced in 1947. It replaced a hodgepodge of different numbering schemes in different parts of the US. The numbering plan was expanded over the years to include Canada and much of the Caribbean. The first numbering plan assigned the first three digits of a phone number to Numbering Plan Areas (NPAs) now just called area codes. There was originally room for 152 area codes with 86 of them originally assigned, each of which could contain up to 540 central offices. Area codes were assigned to minimize the number of clicks on a rotary dial phone for the largest number of people. And so New York City, as the most populous place got area code 212 since that was the least number of rotary clicks that was available and that didn’t start or end with a 1.

Area codes made it easier for operators to place long distance calls. They could quickly tell by the phone number where a call was supposed to route rather than having to know the location of every small town in America. The first direct-dialed long distance call was made on November 10, 1951 between Englewood NJ and Alameda CA. Direct-dial quickly spread to larger cities and was introduced everywhere by the early 1960s, eliminating the majority of operators.

Digits 4 – 6 of a phone number designated the central office that handled a call, which meant a physical location and a switch in the early days. When facing a shortage of central office codes by the late 1980s Bellcore required that all long distance calls begin with the prefix 1+ to distinguish them from local calls or from operator calls that begin with 0+. This allowed them to assign central office codes that begin with the numbers of 1 or 0 and alleviated the number shortage. .

Starting in the 1990s there was an explosion of the demand for central office codes and telephone numbers, mostly due to the creation of CLECs in the US. Up until that time, when somebody was given a new central office code they got a block of 10,000 numbers even if they were only going to have a few customers. The shortage of codes was addressed with two numbering strategies – splits and overlays. Splits divided a central office code into two or more parts that were assigned to different central offices. Each carrier would get only some portion of the 10,000 numbers. Overlays were implemented as entire new area codes that were overlayed on top of an existing area code which could provide a whole new set of central office codes. The public hated overlays at first because they could no longer automatically know the area code of somebody who lived in their area.

Anywhere there was an area code overlay it became mandatory for callers to dial ten digits because there were now multiple local people sharing the same last seven digits. By the early 1990s it became mandatory everywhere to dial ten digits to make a local call.

By 2000 there was a growing shortage of phone numbers and this was solved by using number pooling. This involved assigning blocks of numbers in groups of 1,000 instead of 10,000. First, this allowed the recovery of a huge number of unused thousand blocks from existing carriers. It also means that there is a greater chance that all numbers will eventually get used. About this same time the FCC mandated number portability. This allowed customers to keep their number when moving in some situations. At first a customer could keep a number if they stayed within the same local calling scope. But over time number portability has been expanded and includes a portability between landlines and cellular phones. Cellular phones are completely geographically portable and you can take a cell number anywhere. But there are still some restrictions on geographically moving landline numbers.

It is currently estimated that we have enough telephone numbers to last until sometime in the 2030s. At that time it will be necessary to go to 11-digit dialing. It is amazing to me how gracefully the system has changed over the years as they ran out of area codes, central office codes and then numbers. It’s easy to discount the value of the NANP, but you have to admire how it has been able to accommodate the need for over 100 million new cell phone numbers over the last decade. NANP was devised in a deliberate fashion but has been flexible enough to accommodate huge changes in the industry that could not have been contemplated in 1947.

CCG Number Portability

I don’t write too many blog entries that are direct sales pitches for CCG services. I will admit that many of my blogs hint at the services we offer, but the main intentions of these blogs is to plant ideas for small carriers that we have found to be useful. But this is one of those sales pitch blogs, and if you do number portability you should read it. We now offer the fullest range of number portability products in the industry and we think we have the best prices. The main benefit for small carriers is that we don’t require annual minimums, so if you don’t do a lot of ports we are going to be your best solution. We offer two different number porting products – traditional number porting and LSR service. And in a related service we now offer directory listing update service.

Service Provider LSR Number Porting Service

Before you can port a number you must determine who owns the number and get the owning carrier to release the number to you. This process is referred to in the industry as the LSR porting process. CCG offers the only turn-key LSR porting product in the country and we can interface with any carriers to complete the porting LSRs.

This is the process of notifying the owner of numbers that you are porting their numbers away and is not the same as the process of updating the NPAC database. Rather, this is coordinating the transfer of telephone numbers with the RBOCs, CLECS, cable companies, independent telephone companies or wireless companies that own the numbers. This step is something that must be done before the number port can occur. There was never a lot of need in the past for this service, but now there is such a proliferation of numbers owned by many different service providers that you can’t assume that the numbers you want to port belong to an incumbent carrier.

Product Detail. CCG does the following for each LSR Number Port:

  • CCG will determine who owns the telephone number(s). For example, while you may be trying to port a customer that is using a CLEC like Vonage or Level3, you might find that the numbers actually belong to some other CLEC. We also routinely find that businesses can have numbers that belong to multiple service providers even if they are being billed by just one.
  • CCG will obtain the needed Customer Service Record (CSR) used to verify the porting data provided by your customer and confirm the desired due date.
  • CCG will interface with the “old service provider” LSR system to request a number port. We have found that every carrier has unique LSR processing systems and we can efficiently process with any service provider.
  • We will monitor the porting process. We will troubleshoot any porting requests that are not porting properly and we will escalate as needed to meet your due date. We will notify you when the port is complete and forward you the carriers FOC. We will provide you with documentation that each port has been processed and is complete.

NPAC SOA Number Porting Service

We also now offer the traditional number porting product where we can help you change the ownership of the number in the Neustar database. This allows you to gain control of numbers that previously belonged to another LEC, CLEC or wireless provider. We offer quick turnaround to make sure that you meet your desired service cut date.

In this process you will give CCG access to your database at Neustar. But unlike some other consultants providing this service we also can get you access to the same database and the reports and troubleshooting tools at Neustar.

We can be your turn-key interface in the Neustar Number Portability Administration Center (NPAC) database. We think our prices for this service are the best in the industry. And for small carriers we have no annual minimum commitment. If you only do a few ports per year you should give us a call.

Directory Listing Update Service.

We now also offer a service to update the directory listings for new customers. These updates are very inexpensive for customers who want to keep their directory listing the same as before. But we can also handle complex directory updates.

We also will make sure that you know when the annual directories will be published and we can help you verify all of your listings for accuracy before the directory hits the street each year.

Finally, we can bundle all of these services into a turn-key package that makes it easy for you to add new customers.

Contact Terri Firestein at CCG at 301 788-6889 to learn more about these services and to get a price quote.