What’s in a ring? Power and dialing codes

June 17, 2009

For people who live in the US and aren’t frequent makers of international phone calls, you might not know that all countries have an international dialing code.  And you might not know that the US international dialing code is 1,  as in, “we’re number 1.”  France’s is 33.  Germany’s is 49.  Brazil’s is 55.  The fact that the US is 1 has always struck me as a particularly blatant claim to  super-power status.  Why would we be 33 if we could be 1?

Yesterday I picked up the phone to call a Canadian colleague from my office in the UK.  Without thinking, I dialed 1 plus the area code.  It rang through.  Only today did it strike me as tremendously odd that I did not use an international dialing code to call Canada, or to put it another way, that I used the US international dialing code to call Canada.  Though I do occasionally enjoy a joke at Canada’s expense (an unappealing American habit of mine), assuming that Canada was essentially a telecom extension of the US was a sub-conscious, rather than conscious action.

It turns out that Canada, alone amongst major nations, does share an international dialing code with the US.  Poor Canada: could we not have spared them that indignity?   And noticing this made me realise that there is a definate relationship between a country’s dialing code and its power and status in the international political economy.  Only two countries have one digit calling codes: the US (1) and Russia (7).  These codes were in place during the Cold War (the USSR was 7 as well);  I don’t beleive that it’s coincidental that the only two super-powers possessed the only 1 digit calling codes.

On the second tier, what might be called great powers and regional powers, it’s 2 digit codes all around.  All of the major nations of Europe have two digit codes: as noted above France and Germany are 33 and 49, the UK is 44 and Italy is 39. Large Latin American, African and Asian countries also have two digit codes: Brazil, 55; Mexico, 52; China 86; India 91; Egypt 20; South Africa 27.  All G20 countries, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, the US and Russia, have two digit codes.

But alas, non-powers are relegated to the ignominy of three digit codes.  Nicaragua? 505.  Laos? 856.  Burkina Faso? 266.  Even less powerful European countries, though wealthy in global terms, are not spared:  Finland, with its 358 or Estonia with 372.

Indeed, the trend appeared to be so strong on first glance that I wanted to run some regressions to see how predictive international dialing codes were of some metric of power (e.g. GDP or military size).  However, I ran into two problems.  With a smaller data set (the G20, for example) the fact that the starting number is determined by the region (3 and 4 for Europe, 2 for Africa, 8 and 9 for Asia) means that you obscure the power element because you restrict yourself to two digit codes.  And secondly, though I was interested in the phenomenon, I wasn’t interested enough to spend several hours coding hundreds of countries, so you’ll have to just deal with anecdotal, rather than hard statistical, empirics.

All of this made me think: as international power begins to shift away from Western economies and towards large emerging countries, and especially Asian economies who are stuck with country codes beginning with 8s and 9s, will those countries want “better” dialing codes, just like they want more representation in the IMF?   All I can say is that if  China launches a campaign to change its international dialing code from 86 to 2, you’ll know that you heard it predicted here first.

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2 Responses to “What’s in a ring? Power and dialing codes”

  1. Amy and Thea said

    To whom it may concern:
    Our names are Amy Yan and Thea Postolache. We are 8th grade students at Eastern Middle School’s Humanities and Communications program. Could we use your picture of the woman using a cell phone for academic purposes? We are making a documentary about public relations and advertising.

    Thank You!

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