Why phone companies will fail

cell phone under waterI recently had a very unpleasant experience with my mobile phone. Actually, it wasn’t so much my mobile phone itself, as it was the sharing of my private mobile phone number between colleagues. Seemingly harmless, but with great consequences.

One of my colleagues, in his innocence and with nothing but good intentions, shared my phone number with another colleague. As I was sitting in the hospital, the second colleague called me with questions about estimates I made for a project, which at that time intensely frustrated me.

Although I had the whole weekend to cool down, I was still pretty pissed the following monday. Some unpleasant conversations followed. I think everything is solved now but I can only hope somebody actually deletes my number when he says he does. Which got me to think about the old fashioned and spectacularly broken addressing model phone companies are still using.

When I was little, there were no mobile phones (yes, I’m that old). People had a single line into their house, with a single number. This situation lead to some “number sharing etiquette”: If person A asks for the phone number of person B, instead of giving it, you asked for A’s phone number instead, and passed that to B. This way, both parties have control over sharing their number, without you compromising anybody’s number without their consent.

Nowadays, it seems that only my “smarter” friends find this etiquette normal to be used in sharing email addresses and other address information. Sadly, this is not the case for the younger generations. Sharing email addresses and phone numbers without asking is common practice. With modern communication methods this is not a problem, because the receiver is in control of the inbound traffic. Messages can be blocked, filtered or re-routed. Mails can be routed to different folders or straight into the trash with a simple mail rule.

Much unlike unlike messaging, routing incoming calls is not possible on your phone. Why? Because the phone companies have created a problem when they introduced caller-ID.

Instead of protecting the receiver of the call, they chose to protect the caller by hiding his number if he wishes to do so. This simple oversight results in the receiver not being able to route calls based on caller-ID. I can not block anonymous incoming calls without knowing if I am missing important calls, say from the hospital.

In order to fix this, I propose we do the following:

  1. We still keep (or re-introduce) the sharing etiquette described above, because I think it is good courtesy to handle other people’s data with respect. It’s also a workaround for the inbound routing problem.
  2. We create a system where a phone can have multiple numbers, of which the owner can route traffic. Google voice is already doing this, but european phone companies are not allowing that to happen over here (guess why).
  3. We loose the whole “anonymous calling” idea after implementing 2. As with MSN and Google Talk, I get to see who is calling me, and I can choose to block future calls or add you to my “buddy list”.

Having said all this, I think phone companies are dying. Sure they’re doing okay now, but they keep holding on to old landline business models and apply them to new technology. It will fail like it is failing for the music and film industry right now. Unless phone companies act up and start behaving more like reasonable “data/Internet providers” they will be replaced by internet providers putting up cell towers.

Until then, we need to put up with (but protest against) ridiculous data plans, absurd roaming charges, single-provider GSM towers with coverage problems and the recent “round up to nearest minute” method of over-billing customers.

Since I expect all this to happen not earlier than world peace, let’s be careful about sharing each others numbers, shall we?

5 Responses to Why phone companies will fail

  1. Arjan says:

    I totally agree. But actually, a single SIM can hold multiple phone numbers. If your telco doesn’t support it, then services like tweedenummer.nl can still somehow offer such SIM.

    Also, what about setting your phone to not ring when no caller id is present? Like the many Android Call Filter apps, many of which also allows you to filter your boss’s number😉

    • rolfje says:

      The hospital calls with a private number, so I can’t ignore calls without caller id. And I generally don’t trust services like tweedenummer.nl, because they then have my number, and without any doubt will sell it to companies. Why else is this service free/cheap?

      I have a silent ringtone assigned to people calling me with caller id which I don’t want to speak. That works fine on an iPhone, until they hide their number…

      • Arjan says:

        > The hospital calls with a private number

        Major bummer! But also something you probably already mentioned to the hospital staff? I guess many more folks would like the hospital to NOT suppress their caller id.😦

        One thing I love (but rarely use) about my XS4ALL Voip: I can selectively block specific people, even if they called me without a caller id. And I can even do that after first accepting the call. Still wondering what those people (well, call centres) will hear when they call me…

  2. Anon says:

    But even if you followed that protocol of passing A’s number to B, you still end up with the original problem:

    1) A doesn’t initially have B’s number, so A can’t call while B is in the hospital. So far so good.
    2) B calls A when B is comfortable to do so.
    3) Now A has B’s number, and we’re back to the situation that we wanted to avoid in the first place!

    • rolfje says:

      You’re making 2 assumptions:
      1) B doesn’t have to call A, so A never gets B’s number.
      2) B can hide caller ID and still call A to ask what he wants without exposing his number to A.

      What I forgot to mention in the “A vs B” paragraph is that at that time, there was no such thing as caller-id. Nowadays, you can hide your number and have the same effect, although it has side effects (some of my friends don’t take anonymous calls).

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