Thursday, 20 October 2016

Phone numbers

I was in Bracknell today and saw a sign on a roundabout which got me thinking.

The sign has two phone numbers. Both numbers are Bracknell numbers.

Bracknell is not somewhere that is split up but different groups of numbers or anything, so it is not like one number is obviously one part of Bracknell, and the other for a different part or something like that.

There was no clue as to which of the two numbers one should phone under what circumstances, and so it is simply that they have two numbers.

Their web site suggests only one address, but even that shows both numbers. WHY?!?

I am guessing here, but I think I know what is going on. Once upon a time, if you had a small business and a phone line, there would come a point when you would realise that one line was not enough. So you get a second line.

People would just order a second line, which would get a second number. The problem is that people calling would have to try both numbers if the first was busy. People would publish both numbers, so that people could try both, and also as a kudos thing "we are so big we have more than one phone line".

The daft thing is that this was probably never sensible. From the earliest days of electro mechanical exchanges it has been possible to get auxiliary working where you have more than one line on the same number. At one time this was done where you would actually have a small block of numbers (e.g. 10) where the main number would jump over the busy lines to get to a free one using an electromechanical device (uniselector). It meant one could call the other lines by a direct number if you wanted to. Electronic exchanges did this all in software and there was no need for these extra hidden direct numbers, but there was a service for them (bypass number) if you wanted.

People still wanted the kudos of multiple lines and you would see signs with "(10 lines)" on them after a number. Ironically, at my office (A&A) we really have no idea how many "lines" we logically have, and  I suspect thousands of simultaneous calls could come in if necessary (not that we could answer them all).

Even 25 years ago we had two analogue phone lines on the same number in my house in Bracknell on a system X exchange, and we had 2 (free) bypass numbers as well. I have just got the main number back and ported to VoIP for the hell of it, in fact.

There is one exception, but I doubt it applies to a funeral home - where taxi companies take over another taxi company they keep the number as lots of people have it. Even so, you may as well only advertise the one number (whichever is easiest to remember) even if calls come to the other number still. I can't see people having a funeral home on speed dial or muscle memory in the same way as taxi numbers, can you?

Of course, these days numbers are just an arbitrary routing thing and we can point numbers to multiple devices and allow multiple calls on the same number - being tied to a physical line is long in the past.

And yet, a recent sign on the road for a local company lists two random phone numbers and not just one. Maybe funeral homes are just living in the past.

I was also bemused by formatting. Yes, 6 digit local numbers are often shown XXX XXX style, or just as XXXXXX with no space, but their number is 883322 so why not show as 88 33 22 or 883322 instead of deliberately breaking the nice and obvious pattern by printing as 883 322?

Yes, this is the sort of strange thing going through my head as a passenger in a car...

24 comments:

  1. Was it a taxi firm by chance? They often have more than one number in some areas - either the result of a historical merger, or because they take 2 numbers with different carriers because in a world pre-app and indeed people still often just call, having one number could mean no business whatsoever if it failed.

    It's simple but often a very effective and simple means of resilience for them.

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    1. OK Vince, I am at a loss. The picture says funeral directors, I say funeral home, the web site linked says funeral directors, and I mention the taxi case in the blog. Did you read anything I wrote?

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  2. (I should point out that I saw the article without pictures via RSS first - didn't see it was a funeral directors!)

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  3. I was intrigued, so I did a little research. They are both 01344 numbers, but they aren't both Bracknell numbers: 453926 is in Broadway, Bracknell and 883322 is in Fernbank Road, Ascot. (01344 serves quite a few places other than Bracknell, according to my trusty Phone Book Companion.)

    Their web site says they relocated from Bracknell to Ascot (probably some time ago: the site has a 2009 date); since the two numbers are on different exchanges (THBK for 453926, THWR for 883322) it's quite possible that BT wouldn't let them take their old number to their new premises (BT used to have this restriction as recently as 2007, and for all I know still do), so they had to get a new one - a nice memorable one too.

    They probably kept the old number on (a) because it's the one existing customers would know, and might pass on to others, and they don't want new customers who have been given their number to find it's unobtainable; and (b) to stop it falling into someone else's hands.

    It's not that unreasonable to continue advertising the old number alongside the new one; if nothing else, seeing the old number associated with the new address gives people confidence that it's still the same company. They are a family firm, and funeral directors tend to be quite conservative anyway. (I would guess they redirect the old number to the new one, or to an answering service.)

    As for writing both their numbers as 123 456 rather than 123456, they probably wrote their old number like that for years, and it would seem strange to them to write their spiffy new number a different way, especially if they are going to appear together...

    For many people, the idea of a geographical number being tied to a physical line is still very much reality as they know it: why would they think otherwise? BT are still "the phone company" in many people's eyes, and their business model seems inextricably linked to tying numbers to lines. Saying this is "long in the past" is a bit OTT: it may seem that way to you, and possibly your circle of friends as well, but you can't extrapolate it to the rest of society. I know you've opined in the past that nobody has real POTS telephone lines any more, but IME it simply isn't true for the general public.

    It seems a little harsh to ridicule people in a wildly different line of business for not being as up to speed with technology as you are! 8-)

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    1. Well, when they moved, if they "kept the old number", why get a new number as well then? Oh well, interesting idea.

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  4. If my second-paragraph hypothesis is correct, they had no choice about having a new number on the THWR exchange in order to get landline service at their new premises. How they arranged to keep the old THBK number I don't know: they may still have some office space in Bracknell; maybe they arranged for a Bracknell answering service company to take the number over; or maybe BT allowed them to keep paying for the old number with a permanent redirect on it, which seems to be their current advice for people wishing to retain their number when moving to a different exchange:

    "3. Can I keep the same number when I move premises?
    If you're moving within the area covered by your existing telephone exchange, you should be able to keep your existing number. You can take 0800, 0845 and other BT Telemarketing numbers with you wherever you move in the UK. If you're moving out of the area covered by your existing telephone exchange but want to keep your existing number, we can arrange for your old number to be redirected to your new number for an additional fee."

    But why your roundabout sign shows their old number first, before the new THWR one, is something I have no explanation for! ISTR that BT charge for call redirection by the minute, so surely you'd want people to use your new number directly rather than keep calling the old one? (I see their web site does show the new number first.)

    A tiny part of me wants to ring them up and ask them, but I think trying to explain why I want to know might just be too bizarre...

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    1. I was tempted to send a message via their web page and ask :-) Of course, these days, you can take your number anywhere you like with extreme ease, but they probably did this some time ago.

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    2. Indeed so (on both counts).

      Of course, if you continue to regard telephony provision as an intrinsically BT thing, you still can't take your number with you to a new exchange (see BT web site quote above). I'd like to say I was surprised that this remains the case in 2016, but this is BT, so I'm not.

      Let us know if your curiosity gets the better of you 8-)

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    3. A few years ago, setting up a new office, BT tried to sell us a PSTN+ADSL package with two extra "lines" via VoIP. Absurdly, the two extra lines couldn't be in the same area code as the main line - the nearest they could offer VoIP on was Edinburgh. So, of course, we had to use an alternative provider for those lines instead.

      Then they cut us off by mistake. Then tried to reinstall our existing line in a different building, because they'd "corrected" our service address wrongly, inserting the name of the company next door. We actually had to port to another telco to get that one fixed; apparently most of them lack a grasp of Openreach ORDI systems for fixing that.

      Maybe that's the real reason for two separate lines+numbers - in the hopes BT probably won't have accidents with both services simultaneously? I hear there's a broadband service called Office::1 that does something similar...

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  5. Many, many years ago, whilst working at various British Embassies / High Commissions in Africa, it was quite common to have a whole list of (different - but often sequential) phone numbers for a large place of business.

    When asked about this, the response was usually along the lines of 'well, the first number *should* find a free line, but more often than not it doesn't, so we provide the direct numbers for the other lines.

    Whether it was down to a technical limitation or incompetence by the incumbent (usually state-owned) telco I can't answer - but I certainly remember working my way down a list of numbers to get through to places.

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  6. It's more common than you think, there is an indian takeaway here in Ipswich with two numbers, if you want to pay by card they will ask you to call back on the other number (as it's near the card machine!) then you have to get off the phone so the card machine can dial out to authorise the transaction!

    I think the reasoning is that so many small businesses just have zero knowledge of anything other than their core business, so have poor IT and Telecoms that only really hampers them.

    I was thinking to myself "They probably have broadband, I could sort everything out for them on VoIP for very little cost".

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    1. I have had the same thought when talking to our local Indian. Similar silliness.

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    2. My money would be on poor IT and Telecoms. There's so many different options out there, most of which aren't easily available to research online that unless you've got a consultant in you don't know about them.

      Our local (small) takeaway now has a computer system that uses the caller Id on the phone line to bring up your last few orders on the screen as they answer the phone... One extreme to the other really

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  7. At least it stops you worrying about the check engine light.

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  8. Round here 01538 300 xxx is Blackshaw

    No one in Blackshaw will speak to an Onecote number 01538 304 xxx

    I am totally ignored with my 01538 303 xxx (ISDN)

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  9. I have a great Stoke number that must have been a taxi at some time, I still get calls for a taxi even though I have had it for 10 years plus.

    I have given up telling them that it is no longer a taxi number, they just get cross.

    Instead I tell them I will be there in 10 mins.

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    1. As a wrong number said to my grandmother: "But WHY aren't you the Gas Board?"

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  10. I remember looking into the rates for multiple lines under the same number back in the BBS days (early 90s) and understanding why only the hugest subscription-based BBSes could afford that service. It was really expensive back then in the Netherlands (with only one state telecommunications company to select). Things have changed, and with VoIP service I have had the same scammer call in on 6 channels within 6 seconds...

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    1. In UK auxiliary working was no different cost to an extra line on a different number. Indeed, the bypass number(s) when you have aux working were free (confused the hell out of BT when I ordered that).

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  11. I could never understand the (10 lines) that some companies used to put after their phone number ? So what - was it to tell competitors how many calls they need to make to jam the PBX ? Or was it just willy waving ?

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  12. Reminds me of the Vans with a website but then a hotmail email address on the back, so close but failed at the last hurdle.

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  13. How many times did you have to go round the round about to get the picture?

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    1. I tried, and failed, so grabbed of street view once I got home :-)

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