The heavily-regulated 867 area code that almost every northerner has a phone number in is a relic from a bygone telephone era.
Phone numbers in the 867 area code are more expensive to own and maintain than others in North America, and it’s often more expensive for people Outside to call into 867.
That puts northern citizens and businesses at a disadvantage.
This truth was brought to startling clarity last month when Iristel introduced the NorthwesTel Tax: you must pay a $20 premium if you want a number in the 867 area code.
What’s more, to keep North American long distance plan costs down for all of its customers, Iristel had to exclude Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Instead, callers must pay 15¢ per minute to access residents of the Canadian North, making the 867 area code among the most expensive to call in the world.
But there’s really no reason for any of us to still have numbers in the 867 area code.
We could easily abandon it, saving ourselves money, improving our telephone services, and making it less expensive for people around the world to contact us.
This is easiest to accomplish with mobile devices.
Many of us are abandoning landlines anyway, so when you get a mobile device just get a number in any area code other than 867.
Once you have a mobile device with a less expensive area code, there are many ways to cut costs on telephone calls.
Unlike Iristel, none of the major mobile carriers charge a premium to call into 867, so you can sign up for one of their long distance plans and call your friends in the North for nothing.
Or if a lot of your contacts are on the same mobile carrier as you, you might be able to sign up for a service that allow you to call them for free wherever they are in Canada.
Bell, for example, will let you call any other Bell mobile customer in Canada without limit for $15 a month.
But why pay anything extra at all? These days, if you have a mobile device, you have a data connection which you can use to your advantage.
The free Vonage app for iPhone or Android device, for example, will let you call any number in Canada or the US for nothing — including 867 numbers.
This doesn’t require an account with Vonage, you just need to download and install the app.
Of course, another option is the well-known Skype service, which offers apps for every major mobile platform. Skype-to-Skype calls are free, but you have to pay a nominal fee to call actual phone numbers.
The most robust option for making telephone calls over your mobile device’s data connection is probably an app for Android, iPhone and iPad called Line2.
For $10 a month you get a real Canadian or US phone number that includes unlimited North American long distance calling and steeply discounted international calling.
For $5 more you can get a North American toll-free number.
Line2 is so capable and of such high quality that you could use it exclusively instead of your device’s built-in phone app.
Alternatively, use Line2’s advanced call management features to forward calls to an existing landline or mobile number.
If you’re still so old fashioned that you absolutely need a landline phone, the options are almost as good.
Of course, there’s Iristel. For less than $20 a month you can get any Canadian phone number (other than 867 — that’s where the $20 NorthwesTel Tax would come in) that includes 500 Canada-USA long distance minutes every month.
Another good landline option is Vonage, which offers a service identical to Iristel.
For $10 more you can get unlimited long distance calling to dozens of countries, including Canada and the US.
Then there’s a service called Fongo which is sponsored by Dell in Canada. It’s a decent dirt-cheap hybrid landline-mobile solution, if you don’t mind some ads.
Just download the Fongo app on your iPhone or Android device to sign up for a free Canadian phone number.
You can use the service on your mobile device for free, or you can have a home phone installed for a measly $5 a month.
Fongo includes unlimited free calling to most Canadian cities. A major omission here, as you might expect, is the North.
Fongo charges a 24¢ per minute premium to call 867 area code numbers.
But all of this is just the tip of the iceberg and points to an interesting and imminent future, when not only 867 but all area codes are irrelevant.
“Area codes” are exactly what their name implies — a unique number that indentifies the location of callers. They were used to assess and levy fees based on variable distances over physical telephone networks.
But now that more and more telecommunications is occurring over the internet, area codes and even phone numbers themselves are simply redundant.
Nowehere is this more true than in the Canadian North, where a dependence on one heavily regulated area code — 867 — keeps service costs high and disadvantages citizens and businesses.
And nothing is changing with that any time soon, so it’s time to just move on ourselves.
Sign up for a phone number in a different area code and enjoy the cost savings, improved service, and easier access to the rest of the world.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, January 4, 2013.