Ever heard of Nanpa?

Wrong Number? Blame Companies' Recycling


Almost 37 million phone numbers get recycled each year, a 16% increase since 2007, according to the most recent figures from the Federal Communications Commission. That means with more and more people going cellular, it is increasingly common to get calls intended for previous subscribers.

It's mostly because of a quirky bureaucratic process designed to stave off the day when the nation runs out of 10-digit phone numbers.

On the second floor of a building in Sterling, Va., is a little-known, administrative body called the North American Numbering Plan Administration (Nanpa). This group of 12 people oversees the nation's phone numbers.

Until 2002, Nanpa issued carriers 10,000-number blocks. But as mobile-phone use became pervasive, carriers quickly snapped up more blocks, accelerating the race toward what the industry calls "number exhaustion"—the day when every possible number is taken. Now, Nanpa doles out numbers in blocks of 1,000, and telecommunications experts estimate North America won't run out of phone numbers until 2040. (There's no plan yet for what happens after that, though Nanpa says it's studying options.)

Nanpa releases as many as 30 million never-before-used numbers each year, but carriers can only get them after they have assigned 75% of their inventory and are six months away from exhausting their supply. As a result, many carriers end up assigning recycled numbers before the standard waiting period (90 days for personal numbers, one year for businesses) has passed.

"The one constant among all the innovation in telecom is the numbering plan," says Nanpa Senior Director John Manning, a tall, graying baby boomer and former switch engineer who spends many Friday nights announcing high school football games. "It's used the same way today as it was in the 1950s."

As the number of recycled numbers has grown, it has generated some high-profile cases of mistaken phone identity. National Guard Sgt. Craig McComsey was answering calls from people asking for A C Wharton, the mayor of Memphis. And for a while, rapper Lil' Jon received texts from friends of teen sensation Miley Cyrus after he inherited her old phone number.

Since Nanpa is largely anonymous, phone carriers are stuck fielding complaints when overlaps occur. Scott Freiermuth, government affairs counsel at Sprint Nextel, says that it is the carriers' responsibility to iron out problems involving recycled numbers. Subscribers can ask carriers for a different number, but since the numbers are computer-generated, the carriers say they have no way of determining whether a "new" number is actually a recently recycled one.

Complicating the numbers crunch: The demand for certain area codes has outstripped supply.

"Phone numbers have taken on a social connotation that people want to retain," says Lisa Hook, CEO of Neustar, the company that holds the federal contract to operate Nanpa. Even Ms. Hook, who lives in Washington, D.C., has kept her 212 (New York) and 415 (San Francisco) phone numbers, saying a bicoastal identity is much more appealing than a number that screams that she works in the nation's capital.

Comment: Phone number recycling was the subject of a Seinfeld episode

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