A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How do businesses get phone numbers that spell out a word or a name?

April 9, 1982

Dear Cecil:

How is it that some companies and businesses have telephone numbers that spell out their names and/or services, such as T-I-C-K-E-T-S for ticket services? Is this for businesses only? Is it expensive like custom license plates?

Cecil replies:

Phonetic telephone numbers became feasible when local phone companies began replacing their old electromechanical switching equipment with computer-controlled electronic gear, which simultaneously made possible such modern conveniences as call forwarding and three-way calling. "Feasible," though, is not the same thing as "easy." There are two conditions here, plus a catch. The conditions are, first of all, that the first three letters of the desired number must designate an existing exchange within your area code, and second, that the number cannot already have been assigned to another subscriber. If you, Sue Ryan, resident of area 312, wanted S-U-E-R-Y-A-N (783-7926), for instance, you'd find that there is a 783 exchange on the south side of Chicago (or at least there was when I wrote this, before they began dividing up the area codes), but that 7926 is already assigned. You can try to work out a trade with the present assignee if you want, but the phone company will take no part in such negotiations. If the desired number is available, it's yours at no charge, whether you're a business or not (in Illinois, anyway). The catch is that you have to pay "trunk mileage" charges to have incoming calls transferred from the remote exchance (i.e., 783) to the exchange that serves your telephone (that's where the electronic switchgear comes in). The charges, as one might suppose, vary with distance.

If the preceding doesn't suit you, you can apply for an 800 (incoming toll-free) number. The exchange restrictions don't apply, and since only businesses use 800 numbers, there are many more number combinations available. Unfortunately, it'll also cost you a buncha bux.

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