The law of telephone numbers

By Pulat Yunusov

A few days ago, I was shopping around for a good fax service. Besides receiving faxes by email and a few other musts, I needed a stable fax number. Who can afford to lose a number after spending thousands on advertising? There is goodwill in your number. Sometimes it is catchy and easy to remember. And many people still call businesses, so losing your listed number means losing clients or customers. For a lawyer, it can also mean not receiving a document, which was properly served at the lawyer’s listed fax. The bottom line is your phone or fax number can be precious. But is it really yours? The answer is no if “yours” means private property. But you can still rest assured that your number will point at your business unless you cancel your service.

The Telecommunications Act, a federal statute, empowers Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to regulate telephone numbering in Canada. So at least the local telephone company doesn’t own phone numbers. CRTC regulates the Canadian portion of the North American Numbering Plan, which includes Canada, the US, and many Carribbean countries. That’s why the country code for all these countries is the same: +1.

One of the basic CRTC rules local telephone companies must follow is uninterrupted service. It means if you pay for your basic phone line, your telephone company cannot cut you off. The important concept here is this: if Bell or Rogers could change your number at will, it would amount to interrupting your service because uninterrupted telephone service means that people can reach you at your number, not just that you can dial out. If your number suddenly changed, you’d lose half of your telephone service: all the people who had your number wouldn’t get through to you.

This is important because that’s how the law keeps your number yours right now. Telephone companies must provide uninterrupted service, and that obviously means a permanent phone number. Telephone service wouldn’t make sense if your number randomly changed.

It’s important to know this because if you interrupt your own service by not paying your bill for example or by closing your account, the uninterrupted service rule does not bind the phone company anymore. Since you cancelled the service, the phone company can give your number to someone else. That’s why when you want to move your number to another provider, they will always tell you to stay with the old one until the move is complete. If you cancel too early, you can lose your number.

Your number stays yours due to the uninterrupted service rule. This is not really ownership. It’s more like rent, since as long as you pay your basic phone bill, the telephone company must connect your number.

It make sense to have a telephone number registry linking numbers to specific people or organizations as long as they pay for the registration. This is exactly how Internet domain names work. It doesn’t matter who connects you to the Internet or who hosts your website: as long as you pay Godaddy or some other registrar a small annual fee, your domain is safe. And it’s not like telephones are going out of fashion. The demand for numbers is so explosive, we are getting a third area code in Toronto. It’s time to give us more control over our telephone numbers.

Pulat Yunusov is a Toronto litigation lawyer.

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