The pros and cons of temporary phone number services

Summary:Recently, the public relations department of ZDNet's parent (CNET Networks) asked me if I could help Boston's Fox News affiliate (Fox25 News) with a story it was working on about temporary telephone number services. In preparation for the TV interview, which has yet to air, I did a deep dive on the subject matter and since I don't like letting any work go to waste, I figured why not share what I learned here.

Recently, the public relations department of ZDNet's parent (CNET Networks) asked me if I could help Boston's Fox News affiliate (Fox25 News) with a story it was working on about temporary telephone number services. In preparation for the TV interview, which has yet to air, I did a deep dive on the subject matter and since I don't like letting any work go to waste, I figured why not share what I learned here.

Temporary phone number? What's that?
It used to be that if you wanted a phone number, you had to call a landline or wireless carrier such as your local "Baby Bell" (for me, that's Verizon), your cable TV company (which is now in the voice business), or a cellular network operator (primarily Verizon Wireless, Cingular, T-Mobile or Sprint). Not only that, you usually had to keep the phone number for some minimum period of time like a year. 

But now, thanks to a new breed of services that usually have some sort of Web site at their heart, you can get phone numbers that last for only as long as you want them to. These temporary numbers can literally be turned on and off in a heartbeat, at your whim. So why bother?


Generally speaking, when you get a temporary number, you also forward it to some other number like your mobile phone or landline (in some cases, the services only forward to a voice mail system). The reason you'd do this is for privacy. Instead of giving people or businesses your actual phone number, you give them a special one that's just for them. Later, if you decide you don't want them to bother you anymore, you just turn it off and the next time they call, they'll get a "no longer in service" message. One target market for these services is single people who don't necessarily want to give their real number out to someone they've just met in a night club or in a bar. But given some of the ancillary services that can be connected with temporary phone numbers, there are business applications as well. Anyway, here's a copy of my research on the topic.

Abstract: There are an abundance of services coming to the market, most all them Internet-based in some way, that allow ordinary consumers to activate new phone numbers, give them out, and then deactivate them at will, without ever contacting the phone company. These phone numbers can all be set to ring through to the phone of the customers choice (for example, their house, mobile, or office phone). 

How do these services work?  Think about industrial grade interactive voice response systems like the ones run by airlines where you pick from a menu of choices using the keypad on your telephone.  They work by routing your call through a computer and once the computer is managing that call, the limitations on what can be done with that call are only subject to the limitations of the computer and the person who programmed it. For example, if you call Delta Airlines 800 # from your home phone, and you're one of Delta's Frequent Fliers, not only should the computer pick up the phone can say "Hi Sarah, thanks for calling Delta", it should give you a set choices that are relevant to you.  For example, maybe you fly to Orlando all the time. It can say “Are you flying to Orlando again?” In other words, the way the phone system responds should be sensitive to the who the caller is (something known as “context”) and that context sensitivity is enabled by connecting the phone system to computer systems. 

As we know from our experience in calling airlines and other places of business, for a long time, such contextually sensitive computers could  do some pretty fancy things. But they’re usually very expensive and therefore only available to large corporations like airlines that can afford them. But now, thanks to the Internet, where hundreds or thousands of users can share one centrally located computer system, the economics in terms of making those sorts of industrial grade services available to every day consumers, as though each one of them were an airline with a big fancy system, change. 

So does the functionality.  Consumers may have different reasons for wanting that sort of context sensitivity than would airlines. For example, a typical consumer context is the one where you want to know who is calling, and you want the computer to take some action as a result.  In this context, having separate phone numbers for everyone you’d normally give your phone number to can enable everything from privacy to people you don’t know well to highly interactive data services for the people you trust.

For example, when you call the temporary number that you've been furnished for me, the outbound message can say "Hi Sarah" and I can give you contextually relevant choices that maybe not every caller gets like 1. Pass the call through to David, 2. Get directions to David's house, 3. Have that picture of you with David's new baby e-mailed to you.  

The system knows who you are based on the number you've been given and I control what options are available to you when you call.  In the event you turn out to be someone I don’t want to associate with, I can deactivate the phone number and the next time you call, you’ll get that message that message that we often here that says the phone has been disconnected and no further information is available.

So, a big part of these services and how they’re being advertised has to do with maintaining a certain degree of privacy if not anonymity. But, as alluded to earlier, they also enable the phone system with context sensitive and rich interactivity. 

What are their features? 


Here is an example of some of the features that are offered by these services.  Bear in mind that not every service offers the same features, and where they do, they may not offer them in the same way (plus, there may be other features not listed here): 

 

  • The ability to give out a separate phone number or extension to every contact
  • Your own personal 800 number (whenever callers call an 800 number, their caller ID-blocking is disabled for that call and you get to see who is calling)
  • Voice mail
  • Call screening 
  • Voice mail forwarding (for example, a voice mail can be converted into an MP3 file and it can be sent to you via email where you can play it back on your computer).
  • Assign personal greetings to each caller
  • Ability to reroute calls from all or certain callers to a different phone (eg: your home phone, mobile phone, etc.)
  • Phone call recording (record calls as they take place.. not legal everywhere without notifying the other party that they are being recorded)
  • Ability to publish those recordings automatically to the Internet (good for podcasting)
  • Call scheduling – on a person by person basis, you can set the system to pass call through to you at certain times of the day, and other times not.
  • Call queuing and on-hold music or other recordings
  • IVR-triggered SMS and email messaging (containing anything from personalized messages to directions).
  • MP3 ringtones

This is just a sample of the features. In essence, the limit of what can be done once the telephone system is connected to a computer system is only limited by the creativity of the person who programs the computer system.

What are some typical contexts/usages?

  • Giving out a number to a new acquaintance (be it in a bar, in an Internet chat room, or on a party line)
  • Publishing contact information on the Internet along with a classified ad (like on Craigslist) or auction listing (like on eBay).
  • Customizing your outbound telephony to all of your friends and family
  • Giving phone numbers to businesses or potential telemarketers
  • Managing job applicants. For example, once a job has been filled, you can deactivate the phone number that has been associated with it. Or you can post an outbound message that says the job has been filled.
  • Have one phone number for the rest of your life (eg: an 800 number)
  • Running multiple businesses, each with their own phone number, under one roof. 

Who provides these services?

There are many providers and more showing all the time. Each has their own set of features and offerings most of which don't line up one to one. For example, whereas some give you actual phone numbers, others provide extensions for each different number. Jangl doesn't give you a phone number to hand out. Instead you hand out a Jangl ID that people use to retrieve a number. With Jangl, two-way number privacy is one of the chief selling propositions. These differences between services makes it difficult to do apples to apples comparisons. Also, they have different business models. Some are free (and inject audio advertising). Others require paid subscriptions (for the uncrippled version). Here are some of them:

How much are they?


Cost varies. Some are free and are supported by audio advertising (advertising that you and/or  your callers here when they call into the system).  Other free services have tight limitations on the number of talk minutes or voice mail minutes that entice you into upgrading once you’ve become addicted to the service.  Jangl for example has certain restrictions that are opened up once you start paying $15 per month.  That’s a subscription model.  There are other models. For example, some services are more like telephone companies that charge by the minute.  It depends on the service and it’s up to the consumer to figure out which model best suits them. 

 

One thing consumers should think about is how much of their budget is being allocated to “communications services.”  Between cable or satellite TV, mobile phones, landlines, Internet connectivity, and services like this, the total cost of personal communications is going up. Consumers must ask themselves if this is a service that’s a must have, or is it simply nice to have. Also, what if the budget tightens up and you have to shut the service down? You may have gone in with good intentions of keeping a number for life. But what becomes of all the phone numbers that you gave out to your contacts. They essentially get disconnected.  Also, eventually, it’s quite possible that whoever provides your phone service now will provide these sorts of services as well.

What are their limitations?  Limitations vary from service to service. Some for example limit the total number of voice mails you can store on their systems or the total number of minutes of voice mail that can be archived.  And, since every service has a different set of features, it may be hard to find the one service that has all the features that you want.  

Any gotchas or downsides to services of this nature?  Questions have been raised about what happens when you enter into a business agreement with one of these Internet-based outfits.  What information stays with them? What gets shared with other businesses or lines of business? For example, PrivatePhone is run by internet service provider NetZero. By entering into a business arrangement with PrivatePhone, will NetZero start bugging me to sign up with them for Internet service provision.  Most every Internet-based service has a privacy policy (sometimes, it’s tucked away under “legal notices”. So, here are some tips that apply no matter what service you’re looking into.

If no privacy policy exists, click away (off the site). If one does exist, examine it closely. If you don’t understand the privacy policy or have questions about it, contact the company to get those questions answered. If you can’t get those questions answered to your satisfaction, take  your business elsewhere.

Would I get one? I could see the usefulness of these. But I need less advertising in my life. Not more. So, if were to get one, I'd subscribe to one of the paid services (to bypass the advertising-based free ones). Right now, I don't have room in my budget for something like this. I already pay through the nose for all of my communications services. I don't need to add to that. Long term, I anticipate that most of the phone companies that you're already doing business with will offer services such as these. In fact, it's exactly these sorts of innovative services they should be offering already to avoid extinction.

Topics: Mobility

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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