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New Three-Digit 988 Crisis Line Number Requires Expanded Ten-Digit Local Call Dialing

In many parts of the US, it has long been possible to make local calls with just the seven-digit phone number; the three-digit area code was implicit for calls between numbers using the same area code. Last year, however, the Federal Communications Commission decided to establish 988 as an easy-to-remember three-digit phone number for Americans to use to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in times of crisis. That hotline is currently accessible at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and the 988 number will go into effect on 16 July 2022.

Since some areas that use seven-digit dialing also use 988 as the first three digits of the number, the FCC is requiring all carriers to implement ten-digit dialing in those areas, with 24 October 2021 as a cutoff date. T-Mobile recently alerted its customers to this change, providing a list of area codes by state that will lose access to seven-digit dialing in October. If you’re in one of those area codes, you need to update stored seven-digit phone numbers to include the area code; calls placed with seven-digit numbers may not complete, and you’ll hear a recording explaining why.

Examples of seven-digit numbers in ContactsLuckily, Apple makes it easy to find offending phone numbers in the Contacts app on the iPhone and iPad. Just search for the three-digit exchanges that are commonplace in your area to see which contacts lack the area code. After you tap a contact with a too-short phone number, the only hard part is remembering to tap Edit instead of the phone number (which immediately calls the person).

Perhaps an enterprising community member can whip up something in Shortcuts that will add an area code to all seven-digit numbers.

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Comments About New Three-Digit 988 Crisis Line Number Requires Expanded Ten-Digit Local Call Dialing

Notable Replies

  1. We’ve had mandatory ten-digit dialing here in central Ohio for a couple of years now. The transition was completely painless for us, because we had always by default entered area codes with our contacts’ phone numbers anyway. When you have contacts in more than one area code, or might be making calls from more than one area code, it’s the logical thing to do. The iPhone is more than smart enough to determine when it needs to use all ten digits.

    With more and more people abandoning land lines and taking mobile numbers with them when they move, the area codes of individuals’ numbers are less and less matched to their home location. National mandatory ten-digit dialing has been on the horizon for a while. It’s just been a question of when it would take effect.

  2. If you’re in an area where it used to be seven digit dialing, and it’s changing to ten digit dialing, under Settings->Phone is a setting called Dial Assist. This is suppose to correctly dial the right prefix when it’s ambiguous. If you don’t have an area code for a phone number, it’s suppose to automatically dial the correct area code for you. However, there’s been a few cases where the iPhone makes bad assumptions about the number with Dial Assist. I think Adam had a problem with his mom’s phone dialing Malaysia when dialing his number.

    Another possibility is to go to iCloud.com on an iPad, Mac, or PC and go into Contacts (can’t do this on an iPhone). Under the “gear” (lower left on screen) is an option to standardize phone number formats.

    Worse come to worse, you can download all of your contacts and reformat them in Python or Perl. Then reload them.

    I wonder if there’s a Shortcut script that will do it for you.

  3. In 1997 (!) I prepared advice about Australian phone numbers changing to 8 digits:
    http://www.vdrsyd.com/mp/austfone.html
    I wonder how long before we move to 9 or 10 digits. But that would involve planning and according to Spike Milligan, things can only go wrong if you actually have a plan (paraphrased!).

  4. I’ve done that for everyone after a certain point, but there are tons of contacts in my address book that date back decades (and have been imported from contact manager to contact manager). I imagine many TidBITS readers are in a similar situation.

    I’d forgotten about that! But no, that was a region setting corruption.

    I’m not sure I ever knew this setting existed—thanks for the tip! As I read the description more closely, though, I don’t think it will do what we want. It says that “Dial assist automatically determines the correct international or local prefix when dialing.” To my mind, that means that it knows to put in a country code as necessary (such as when calling a US number while in another country). No mention is made of area codes in Apple’s descriptions. That’s supported by this discussion:

    https://discussions.apple.com/thread/4584823

    As far as I can tell, the “Automatically format phone numbers” checkbox in the iCloud Contacts preferences just formats numbers according to a predetermined scheme when you edit them. It doesn’t seem to add area codes to seven-digit numbers.

    There’s a challenge for the community! It looks to me like it wouldn’t be impossible to do this in Shortcuts—there seem to be actions for reading and writing with Contacts.

  5. I use my Mac for dialing phone calls with my landline. I do this with an external Fax Modem via a USB port that I have had for years from when MacOS supported Faxing, and like Windows still does, still should as health organizations and financial institutions still use this technology as it is the most secure method of sending documents. I use the Fax Modem with the App, Phone Amego, which allows a Mac to dial a phone number from Contacts, entering a number from the keyboard, or from most any document or web page. Part of its preferences is to always use 10 digit dialing when dialing and to automatically add the local area code to the number when none is present, such as a 7 digit number and even dial alphanumeric phone numbers and has call logging that supports adding notes to the call. It is slightly tricky to set up as it also requires you choose the App for dialing in Facetime Preferences. For Hardware I use the USRobotics modem which has been reported to be the most compatible and costs around $70 but others are available starting at around $20. I also use it in combination with the App, PopClip which allows highlighting any number and dialing with a single click. So when I make a call using my computer, I simply highlight the number on my screen,“right click” (actually I use a Magic Pad) and select the phone logo which dials the number, adding an area code if needed. A few seconds later the Fax Modem disconnects after I have picked up my handset, and I am on the call. Phone Amego has many other features as well but this is not intended to be a review of Phone Amego but to only address the dialing issues. However as bonus for having a Fax Modem, if you run Windows virtually you can actually Fax from your Mac. It should also be noted that if you use an App, email or website for Faxing, you are negating its enhanced security as you are actually sending your document to the service via the internet which can expose it to hackers. This is something that Apple and the fee based services fail to mention when promoting this method of sending Faxes using this method which Apple now recommends as an alternative to using a Fax Modem. It should also be noted that Phone Amego can use your mobile phone, if connected to you Mac to dial calls in the same manner as well but you will need to use your moble phone for the call.

  6. OMG! If I have to update all my numbers then my next call might be to National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

  7. Two comments.

    This new crisis line number seems like a bad idea. We’ve had 911 for a long time, and everyone is familiar with it. But now we’ll have 988 for suicide prevention. But then I expect other groups will start lobbying for their own crisis lines, and so we’ll get 977, 966, 955, 944, and so on. And no one is going to remember which special number is for what… (“Is 955 the eating disorder hotline? No, that’s the PTSD hotline.” “No, that’s 977”. “You’re right - 955 is what you call when you see a drunken driver.” “Right. I’ll just call 911 and ask them…”)

    Then I’ll bet the people who set this up and tested it live and work in a major metro area that’s had 10-digit dialing for a long time. And didn’t realize or figure out it might cause problems in the small number of 7-digit areas (mostly smaller states or rural areas) until after the commitment was made and it was mostly implemented and tested.

    (BTW, I moved to Hawaii several years ago from a place that required 10-digit dialing, and it is nice just to be able to give out a 7-digit local number. Oh well…)

  8. Just as we have for years been able to distinguish between 911 and 311 and 411, I’m sure we’ll in the future be able to distinguish between 911 and 988.

  9. Luckily, Apple makes it easy to find offending phone numbers in the Contacts app on the iPhone and iPad.

    Doesn’t seem too “easy” to me — perhaps for someone with a short and simple list of contacts from one city, but I think many of us have contacts with all kinds of area codes and country codes. What a mess that could be to sort through. I guess I was proactive when I spent some time abroad and updated all of my numbers to include country codes (so all of my US contacts are in a proper 11-digit format) but this still seems like a headache for a lot of people. Worth it, of course, to have a lifeline that could save lives, but the implementation seems clunky.

  10. I think this should only be a situation for those who have stored seven-digit numbers for their city. Phone numbers in other area codes would never have worked if you didn’t store a ten-digit number, nor would numbers for people in other countries if you hadn’t stored an eleven-digit number.

    For instance, I’m in the 607 area code. Ithaca has a few exchanges, like 272, 273, 255, 256, 257, 319, and so on. Because I’m old enough to remember when that was all you needed to know, it’s not a stretch to think of them all and search for them.

    Amusingly, back in 1988 or so, Cornell and MIT both had the same exchange (either 255 or 253—I’m dimly remembering that 253 was the exchange for student dorms, whereas is 255 remains Cornell’s primary exchange). Cornell is in the 607 area code and MIT is in the 617 area code. A Cornell friend once got a wrong number call on campus and when she asked who the caller was trying to reach, was told some person or department at MIT. Since my friend was from Cambridge, MA, she knew the MIT numbers and figured out that the caller had misdialed just the area code to end up at Cornell rather than MIT.

  11. Off-topic. As in, way off-topic.

    About that same time, the University of Iowa changed its campus exchange number from 353 to 335 as part of some massive upgrade. Lots of planning, announcements, blah blah, including automatic forwarding from the old to the new number.

    The day after the switchover, someone (probably the student newspaper) requested stories of the transition, with some prize for most humorous. This was the runner-up: “I programmed the new number to auto-forward to the old number, which then auto-forwarded to the new number, and so on. Then I got some work done.”

    How do you top that? The winner for funniest story: “It just worked.”

  12. I haven’t had a landline in more than a decade and have had a cell number from a completely different part of the country (a metro area with an area code overlay where I previously lived), so I didn’t realize that some people were still able to dial only 7 digits.

  13. I do find it amazing that folks still have numbers that they currently call listed in 7-digit format in their contacts. If you might use your phone while traveling, then the area code is a necessity. If the folks you call are using a VOIP, their number could have almost any random area code. Of course, if you live anywhere in the metropolitan area of a major city, you’ve needed to have all 10-digits for a while, even to call locally, as the area codes get sliced and diced every few years.

  14. I like the hack for using a modem as a dialer. It used to be a ‘thing’ in the 1980’s, and interesting it is still useful.

    As for security, almost all faxes are connecting, over the Internet, to fax servers. End-to-end encrypted electronic document interchange has been infinitely more secure than unencrypted, easily tapped, fax-to-fax transmission for years.

  15. The FCC, industry, and the public invested a lot of effort to look at all of the issues. In fact, the biggest issue is the number of locations that still have 7-digit dialing and have the 988 exchange active. If you are wondering, the answer is 90. The FCC also did a cost-benefit analysis that included things like upgrading or replacing switches that cannot handle a new 3-digit number that is not N11, educating the public about mandatory 10-digit dialing, people upgrading their address books [like the discussion here], etc.

    Also, the suicide prevention community was adamantly opposed to proposals to use 911.

    The estimated costs are about $367 million, the bulk of which is advertising (PSAs) about using 988, instead of the “easy to remember” 800-253-8255 (which spells nothing but does end with TALK). I get that $367 million sounds like a lot. However, the benefits are expected to be at least $2.4 billion, not counting the pain and suffering for the individuals and their families avoided by having an easy to remember number to call.

    See Designating 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline | Federal Communications Commission for the Report & Order and Commissioner’s statements.

  16. … and three of those locations are already in the process of upgrading to 10-digit dialing, independent of the new 988 number.

    I am curious about how many locations still have 7-digit dialing overall, including those where 988 is not an active exchange (the report doesn’t state this number). Those locations could, presumably, just make sure to reserve 988 so it is never issued as an exchange number.

    But I wonder how important this actually is. The issue really only applies to land-lines, which are becoming less and less popular over time. Mobile phones, by virtue of having a “send” key, have no problem with variable-length phone numbers. So a 988 short-code could be applied to mobile networks without any impact at all. It’s only the requirement to deploy it over land lines that creates the issue.

  17. Thanks for the update. I’ll accept that the FCC did a good analysis.

    And I can understand why the suicide prevention community wanted this.

    But I still worry that too many of these hotline numbers will be created. For example, there’s a National Domestic Violence Hotline and a National Sexual Assault Hotline, each with 10-digit hotlines. I’m sure they’re both lobbying Congress and the FCC to get 3-digit hotline numbers, too, with the same sorts of justifications as the suicide prevention line. And a whole bunch of other national, regional, or local hotlines of various sorts who’d like the same thing!

    The more of these that succeed in getting 3-digit hotline numbers, the harder it will be to remember and distinguish between them. Someone else commented that along with 911, we have 311 and 411. I’d forgotten about 411 - I thought that went away with rotary dial phones. :wink: And I’d never heard of 311; I had to look that up.

    So I fear it’s a no-win situation. If the 988 number is unsuccessful, we will have wasted a lot of money and effort. If the 988 number is successful, it will spawn a bunch of other hotline numbers, which in the long term will confuse potential users.

  18. Wow. I haven’t used anything less than 10 digits to call anywhere for at least 10 years…. I had no idea it was still even possible to call with just 7 digits.

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