“9 to get out” is Out.

by Dave Michels

Some habits are hard to kick.

My son asked me why we “dial” a phone? That question really surprised me. Upon discussion, I realized that he had never seen a rotary phone. Fortunately, good ol dad had a rotary phone (authentic Western Electric) for him to see.

Today, the term “dialing” a phone makes no sense. But colloquial terms are not particularly accurate – so perhaps “dialing” phone numbers will last through the telepathic era just as we continue to “roll” down the [electric] window.

This isn’t the only evolutionary stump in our dialing world. The other one is the ever present 9 to get out (Out9). This practice today is just stupid.

It wasn’t always stupid, in fact it was quite an elegant solution to the switching problem. Traditional mechanical telephone switches switched circuits (yes, there is a reason they were called switches) as you dialed. This is how we ended up with so many dialing rules – most of which are now obsolete. There were a lot of rules we obeyed unknowingly to support the dialing plan. For example, starting a long distance with a 1 to tell the switch it was long distance (completely eliminated now on cell phones and many other switches), or the fact that area codes had to have the middle number be a 0 or 1 – was eliminated about 10 years ago to accommodate number shortages.

But the simple rule of a dialing a 9 to get an outside line – has not been driven away due to shortages. The Out9 is not part of the formal North American Dialing plan, rather a practice that is now obsolete. The 9 used to tell the switch an outside trunk was needed.

The cell and VoIP switches changed a major rule or practice. They changed the dialing game to not dial or route until the entire number is received. As users, the major “feature” this enabled was Backspace; which was impossible in the old days. Nothing worse than dialing a long number and messing up on the last digit. Incidentally, a long number was one with lots of fives or higher.

Cell and (most) VoIP switches get the whole number fist. Then they evaluate the route based on the entire number. Just as a human can guess that 101 is likely an internal extension, so can the switch. Denver is a bit more complex as we have local 10 digit dialing… don’t get me started on that. (10 digits and two ‘local’ area codes, geez).

On my residential Switchvox, I have it set to to support 9 or not for external calls, with separate rules (starts with a 9, plus 10 more digits or starts with 303 or 720 plus 7 more digits) for local calls. Since I am experimenting with different SIP carriers, I am currently using 9 to select a Teliax SIP trunk.

What surprises me is how often we still use 9 when we don’t need to [inconvenience people] anymore. Or how often we use a 9 at home when it won’t work due to habit. I think it is time to get rid of the the Out9. Time to move on.

The Out9 also complicates 911 (personally, I think it is should 111 as there are some rotary users out there). We dial a 9 to get out, and 1 for long distance, we are only 1 digit away from the ‘never dial unless an emergency’ number. Or worse, all the signs that say “in case of an emergency dial 911”, when they often mean to say 9-911. When I call the doctor’s office, their greeting says “If this is a life threatening emergency, hang-up and dial 911”, but if I need to dial a 9 to get out, isn’t that likely to confuse me and create grounds for a lawsuit? I don’t think it would be frivolous either, they say to first hang-up and then dial, so they are clearly assuming the caller requires step by step instructions (I find it odd that we are instructed to hang-up then dial, don’t we need to go off-hook first?).

So can we get rid of the Out9 to get out? Surprisingly, the answer is still no. Many brand spanking new state-o-the-art PBX/VoIP systems still route/switch as we dial. The Mitel 3300 for example still routes as you dial. The Mitel 3300 is no baby VoIP platform. It is rich in applications, highly scaleable, and can be clustered for HA between servers and sites. The software is on version 9. But it still requires the Out9.

Because the Out9 is not really a part of the North American Dialing Plan, there is no formal organization to repeal the practice. The ones that are repealing it are the ones that were never taught it, which generally are Asterisk users. The Asterisk users and the telecom users come from different perspectives. The telecom guys follow the rigid rules of Telecom and the Asterisk guys seek elegance. I have to say, the first time we implemented a phone without without the Out9, it freaked me out. Now I question the entire practice.

Perhaps another blog on a PBX set-up wizard to assist in creating a site dialing plan. PBXs don’t have wizards like PCs do. But this particular blog is about the Out9. I say it is time for it to go. Just like the rotary dial, the separate earpiece and microphone, the 3 coin slot payphones, and the coiled handset cords (oops got ahead of myself).