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Telephone number


A telephone number is a sequence of digits assigned to a fixed-line telephone subscriber station connected to a telephone line or to a wireless electronic telephony device, such as a radio telephone or a mobile telephone, or to other devices for data transmission via the public switched telephone network (PSTN) or other public and private networks.

Telephone numbers were first used in 1879 in Lowell, Massachusetts, when they replaced the request for subscriber names by callers connecting to the switchboard operator. Over the course of telephone history, telephone numbers had various lengths and formats, and even included most letters of the alphabet in leading positions when telephone exchange names were in common use until the 1960s.

The dialing plan in some areas permits dialing numbers in the local calling area without using area code or city code prefixes. For example, a telephone number in North America consists of a three-digit area code, a three-digit central office code, and four digits for the line number. If the area has no area code overlays or if the provider allows it, seven-digit dialing may be permissible for calls within the area, but some areas have implemented mandatory ten-digit dialing.

The format and allocation of local phone numbers are controlled by each nation's respective government, either directly or by sponsored organizations (such as NANPA in the US or CNAC in Canada). In the United States, each state's public service commission regulates, as does the Federal Communications Commission. In Canada, which shares the same country code with the U.S. (due to Bell Canada's previous ownership by the U.S.-based Bell System), regulation is mainly through the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

In the late 1870s, the Bell interests started utilizing their patent with a rental scheme, in which they would rent their instruments to individual users who would contract with other suppliers to connect them; for example from home to office to factory. Western Union and the Bell company both soon realized that a subscription service would be more profitable, with the invention of the telephone switchboard or central office. Such an office was staffed by an operator who connected the calls by personal names. Some have argued that use of the telephone altered the physical layout of American cities.

In rural areas with magneto crank telephones connected to party lines, the local phone number consisted of the line number plus the ringing pattern of the subscriber. To dial a number such as "3R122" meant making a request to the operator the third party line (if making a call off your own local one), followed by turning the telephone's crank once, a short pause, then twice and twice again. Also common was a code of long and short rings, so one party's call might be signaled by two longs and another's by two longs followed by a short. It was not uncommon to have over a dozen ring cadences (and subscribers) on one line.

In December 1930, New York City became the first city in the United States to adopt the two-letter, five-number format (2L-5N), which became the standard after World War II, when the Bell System administration designed the North American Numbering Plan to prepare the United States and Canada for Direct Distance Dialing (DDD), and began to convert all central offices to this format. This process was complete by the early 1960s.

Most of the United Kingdom had no lettered telephone dials until the introduction of Subscriber Trunk Dialing (STD) in 1958. Until then, only the director areas (Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester) and the adjacent non-director areas had the lettered dials; the director exchanges used the three-letter, four-number format. With the introduction of trunk dialing, the need for all callers to be able to dial numbers with letters in them led to the much more widespread use of lettered dials. The need for dials with letters ceased with the conversion to all-digit numbering in 1968.

The film Bruce Almighty (2003) originally featured a number that did not have the 555 prefix. In the cinematic release, God (Morgan Freeman) leaves 776-2323 on a pager for Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) to call if he needed God's help. The DVD changes this to a 555 number. According to Universal Studios, which produced the movie, the number it used was picked because it did not exist in Buffalo, New York, where the movie was set. However, the number did exist in other cities, resulting in customers' having that number receiving random calls from people asking for God. While some played along with the gag, others found the calls aggravating.