Can you request a specific phone number if it’s not in use?

You can always request. As to whether you can get it, that is another matter entirely.

For “toll-free” numbers (800, 877, 866, 855 “area codes”), there is an active market place for buying and selling.

For regular numbers, they are allocated/issued to local carriers as needed, generally in blocks of 10,000 – smaller blocks if the area code is almost full. If the current holder of the number gives it up (after possibly taking it with them through several moves to other phone companies), I believe it reverts back to the owner of the prefix. If you want that number, you have to talk to that carrier.

Usually, when you open a new service, they will give you a choice of 10–12 numbers. For years I had the number xxx-569–5277, which I spelled out as LOW-LARS. Most people found that easier to remember than 7 digits. When my daughter got her first cell phone, I picked xxx-xxx-KATP (for Katherine Poulsen) but she hated that. “I don’t want to be cat-pee! – Yuck”.

How do “Free Conference Calls” work?

“Free conference calling” is a scam to rip off the Universal Service Fund.

The telecommunications act of 1936 laid down the principle that having access to a telephone line is a basic civil right that must be priced so it is available to almost everyone, everywhere in the continental United States.

To make that happen, it was decided that the small cooperative rural telephone companies would receive various subsidies from the Universal Service Fund, which gets its money from a small tax on all telephone subscribers (you will find it on your phone bill as a separate line item).

In the restructuring of telephone companies after the breakup of AT&T, it was decided that the rural telephone companies could charge a higher rate for calls delivered to them from the long distance telephone companies. This created an incentive for them to attract high volumes of calls. Some enterprising people invented the “free conference call”.

The “free” call costs as much as 22 cents per minute. The calls typically do not even make it to the physical location of the rural exchange; they are picked off at a large switching center closer to the backbone of the network. The scammers rely on the obscurity of the accounting – that it is hard to explain how these specific calls are different from other calls. Most mobile telephone companies have started blocking these numbers.

The proposed rule says if the end users insists on calling these numbers, they can be billed for the cost of the call. Makes sense to me.

Someone is sending me email. It gets delivered on Gmail, but not on Hotmail. Why?

“Non-junk” is in the eye of the beholder. YOU may know that they are “non-junk” but a rules-based email filtering program may not.

The ordinary Internet user has no idea how much junk mail has to be screened out by your email service provider in order for you to see more good email than junk. Trust me, if your email address has existed more than a few weeks, you would not want to see the sewer that is an unfiltered mail feed.

The service providers each maintain their own filtering rules, and there are slight differences, due in large part to the fact that they see different profiles of bad mail.

I act as my own email service provider (i.e. I run a mailserver on the Linux box in my home office), and I have outsourced my mail filtering to a Danish friend in Switzerland, who does this as his business, catering to customers in Switzerland and Germany. (And I get it for free, because I helped him with beta testing when he started up.) The spam that I get is different from what his German customers get, so my feedback is helpful to him.

One of the layers of his filtering is this: For every email received, he looks up the combination of “From:” address, “To:” address and the IP address from which the connection comes in. If this combination is new, he rejects the mail with a return code that says “We can’t talk to you right now, come back later”, and then marks that he has seen this combination before. So when the sending “Post Office” tries again (usually 15–30 minutes later), it goes through. We had a correspondent in Brazil, whose email was never getting through. We had him send it to a different mailbox and then sent the evidence to my filtering provider, who checked their logs. It turned out, that the sending post office was a cluster of over 200 machines, and it might take days before the retries landed on a machine that had been used before. So he had to program an exception for this provider’s IP address range.

Why does he do this particular screening layer? Because it gets rid of over 90% of the mail, which comes from hijacked PC’s belonging to home internet users on cable modem connections which get a spam message and a list of 10,000 email addresses to deliver it to. They will not retry, because that is too much work, not worth it – just try the next address in your list.

I highly recommend SpamChek for this kind of service.


Why are long distance phone calls free when calling from a cell phone but not when calling from a landline?

The pricing of communication services has very little to do with actual costs.

In “the old days” when “the Bell Telephone Company” was a monopoly provider, they derived almost all their profits from their “Long Lines” division. Later, when the courts ordered the breaking up of AT&T into 7 regional local service providers and a long distance company, and set parameters to allow other companies to compete for long distance service, the most expensive long distance calls were the ones that were outside your “local calling area” but short enough that they did not have to be handed over to the long distance carrier. (Intra-LATA long distance calls.)

When cell phone companies started, they were also regional. In each service area, there were provisions to have two cellphone companies: One was the local telephone company (if they wanted it) and the other had to be a non-telephone company. Eventually, the wireless carriers started merging and offer national coverage, and they took the opportunity to carry all calls within the country at the same rate as local calls.

The reality is that except for the last mile, most telephone calls go through the Internet (or some circuit switched network where other circuits are used to provide Internet links). Most of the costs are not in providing the circuits, but in customer service and occasional trouble-shooting.

My business has 5 desktop telephones and a FAX machine. We used to have 3 landline circuits, one of which was dedicated to the FAX. We paid about $200 per month, but I hated their service; they would screw up our billing every so often and try to upsell us and give misleading information about what the “improved” plan would entail and what it would cost. Repeatedly, the telephone sales agent would promise us savings, and when we got the first bill, it was $50 to $75 month MORE than the previous plan. So I decided to make a change.

We now use an internet based telephone service. We pay about $15 per month. We did have to buy new telephones, but the whole set cost less than $300, and we sold our old PBX switch for almost that much.

CallCentric (VoIP Internet phone service) is the company. They are wonderful if you are a techie and can do your own technical support. The only problems we have had were because we had not tied down our network security enough. Someone hacked our phones to dial cellphone numbers in Macedonia that streamed music all day at about $2/minute. (I am sure no actual cellphones were involved, but the numbers were in a number range listed a mobile phones, so that the rates were higher than normal international rates.)

The real rip-off today is international roaming charges on cellphones. I came home from my European vacation in May/June to a $6,200 cellphone bill due to a data entry error at ATT. Took 2 months to straighten out. Made up for the “free long distance calls” for a long time.

Can you have two cellphones with the same number?

Yes and No – in other words, it depends.

The cellphone switching system will not service two phones that identify themselves identically. The communications protocols assume that the subscriber number is a unique identifier, and things go badly wrong if the system keeps thinking the same device is in two different places simultaneously.

On the other hand, you can get a telephone number from a VoIP service provider and configure it so that it rings two different mobile phones simultaneously and had the call off to the first one that answers. You can also run a VoIP telephone application on those same telephones that routes outgoing calls through the VoIP switch and presents that VoIP telephone number as the originating number in the Caller-ID data.