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Why We’re Running Out of Phone Numbers

Unexpected Growth of PSTN Uses


When we think of the phone network and how we interact with it, what typically springs to mind are the end-user signaling devices we use, such as our office phones, chat clients, and mobile phones. The connecting fiber that runs through these devices is a move away from what we traditionally think of as the Public Service Telephone Network (PSTN)—the office phones we typically use are SIP devices or soft phones making VoIP calls, our chat clients are bundled into a cloud-based comms stack, and our mobile phones have completely replaced the landline. While this seems to point toward the growing obsolescence of the phone network, what we’ve seen in the past decade is an explosion of use cases that have made it, if anything, more relevant and essential to everyday life. In an ode to the PSTN, here are a few growth areas that we think will blow your mind.

Smart Doorbells

A very widespread example of this unexpected growth for phone network use is the rise of smart doorbells. These smart doorbells often feature a wireless install, as they connect to your house’s Wifi network. The camera feature on a smart doorbell is essentially a VoIP call routed through FreeSWITCH to your cell phone via the doorbell’s app. As an added security measure, these smart doorbells also have a backup alert system in case your Wifi is down, either through a network outage or a would-be intruder cutting your network line. For this backup alert system to work, there is a modem within the smart doorbell that can send notifications to your mobile phone via a cellular connection, which means that each of these devices has to have a phone number. So, in spite of these smart doorbells being heralded and marketed as modern home security solutions, these devices are essentially tiny cell phones that depend on telephone technology and the PSTN.

Credit Card Machines

An even more ubiquitous use of the phone network is credit card machines. While some credit card terminals are plugged into the internet, a large majority are still plugged into the phone network and rely on the PSTN to communicate sale and account information to the various credit card companies. When you see the transmitting or processing notification, these machines are actually dialing out on the backend to a modem or a phone line to make that connection with the credit card companies. What this means is that nearly all credit card readers—be they in a restaurant, bar, store, or even the terminals in on-street parking meters—need to have an associated phone number. So, if you’re wondering why we seem to be running out of phone numbers, start counting parking meters that have built-in credit card terminals and remember that each of those needs to have a unique phone number in order to complete your transaction over the PSTN.

Point of Sale Machines

Speaking of restaurants and bars, another unexpected growth area is in Point-of-Sale machines. As one of their many functions, these machines have credit card terminals built into them that keep your credit card on file temporarily and charge you when you close out, which, as we’ve seen, relies on the PSTN. These machines have also become significantly more advanced in recent years, with many sending SMS messages or making an automated call to confirm a future reservation or to notify you that your table is now ready. With dine-in services limited in the past year and the consequent explosion of delivery service app use, many restaurants are also relying on the PSTN to communicate with these apps. The restaurant may have a tablet telling them a delivery app order has come in, but the order could go unnoticed if an employee is not focused on the tablet. So, the order will be sent via the app initially, but, if nobody acknowledges it, the app will then start repeatedly calling the restaurant to ensure they have received and acknowledged the order. All of these services are intertwined and, of course, there has to be phone numbers associated with these Point-of-Sale machines and the delivery apps in order to make all of this work. 

While we have barely scratched the surface of the unexpected growth areas for the PSTN, these three brief examples highlight the extensive, daily interactions we have with the phone network, often without realizing it. While the home phone line may be a thing of the past, we are currently seeing massive growth in how many people are depending on the phone network, as well as the durability and flexibility of the PSTN in its ability to solve these myriad practical problems that phone lines were never meant to address.

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Tagged: secrets of the phone network, telecommunications, telecom, telephony, 2600Hz blog