Toll-Free: A Look Back!

It was 1995, just a few years after portability began in May, 1993. Toll-free 888 numbers were being readied, but they were not set to be launched until the spring of 1996.

Creative, yet frivolous, use of toll-free services was rampant in those early years as 800 numbers rang to pagers, “bag” phones, and home lines. For a time, 800 numbers were being given away like toasters and, when an impending shortage became imminent, MCI reserved hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of 800 numbers for themselves causing a sudden panic among the other carriers who did not have the foresight to do this first.

For subsequent months, disconnected numbers were not being spared by the major carriers-- especially AT&T -- for fear they would have no numbers to fuel their own growth. Like Centrex, where the RBOCs held back the most sought-after local numbers to leverage their own service offerings, it was anticipated that AT&T, MCI, and others would recycle the best 800 numbers to their high-valued customers and dish out “left-overs” to small businesses.

The world of toll free was rapidly heading down the same road of greed and self-interest that ultimately played out in the world of Internet domains. Like domains, toll free numbers that were once recycled for free were being seized by the distributors and leveraged for their own gain. LIke domains, only insiders had access to the best toll-free numbers. Like domains, greed and fear led to panic and opportunity, and there was a sudden shortage of good address space. Only, unlike domains we had a responsible adult in the room; the FCC.

Thanks to the early anti-warehousing policies of the FCC, Major distributors were compelled to spare numbers for which they had no subscriber. AT&T, MCI and others were prevented from stock piling recycled numbers. The disconnect-to-spare term was shortened from 6 months to 4 month to hurry available numbers for reassignment. They policies combined to free enough numbers so the spare pool remained “stocked” through the 1996 release of 888 toll-free numbers.

The FCC ruling 95-155 -- the "chill factor" -- included policies that had a chilling effect on the toll-free market felt to this day, as participants naively concluded that a prohibition on selling naked numbers extended to selling anything built around toll-free numbers. In addition, major distributors naively branded anyone involved in vanity design and acquisition as an illegal “broker.” 

While a hugh market sprang up for acquisition, recycle, and resale of Internet domains, toll-free numbers speculators were small, private entities quietly acquiring numbers for others or to licensing. Pete Silver was the first vanity consultant to be interviewed by the trade press in an smug article entitled, “1-800-Get-Cash,” in the early nineties.

Vanity International was the first vanity design consultant to gain notoriety with it’s landmark article, 1-800-MindShare, published in Advertising Age on July 24, 1995, followed by an CNBC broadcast interview featuring Vanity International and David Ashley's 1-800-Yellow-Cab program. Others vanity consultants followed in copy-cat style, including one infamous web-site that consisted of nothing but a pirated reprint of this landmark article -- less the last paragraph -- and he’s Bill Quibbling....  Ur, I mean, “still quibbling”....  to this day. 

Over the ensuing years, a few additional milestones have had enormous impact on the growth of toll-free numbers: 

  • The Internet took off in the late 90’s giving consumers a viable way to access instant information without using the phone. 
  • Emergence of affordable cell phone service rendered toll-free for home use and pagers unnecessary.
  • Pay phone operators successfully imposed a fee-for-use on toll-free calls and the appeal and convenience of free calling from pay phones was lost. The upside, though, was that the frivolous use of toll-free numbers on pagers was all but eliminated.
  • High profile ticket sellers -- most notably the airlines -- began charging a $10-20 surcharges for human operators, rending phone purchases undesirable.
  • Smart phone emerged, most notably Blackberry, that didn’t map their number keys to the traditional spellings of vanity numbers (although there are workarounds). 
  • Text messaging became interchangeable among carriers opening the way for communication without using voice. 
  • Ad tracking with unique toll-free numbers has been a staple of advertising. Yet, Pay-per-call services have recently emerged that use vast quantities of unique toll-free numbers to micro track customer response.
  • With the emergence of “Apps,” information is instantly available, bypassing both phone and websites. 

All of these factors combined with the “chill factor” to dampen the toll-free numbers market. Yet, as you look back to these FCC filling from 1995-97, the same principles have endured the test the time, that:

  • FCC is charged with protecting the Spare Pool, not interfering with our businesses.
  • Naked numbers cannot be bought and sold, yet once combined in a program the resulting enterprise in beyond the sole control of the FCC.
  • Vanity numbers are not intrinsic in the underlying numeric address, but exist purely as mnemonics.
  • Branded numbers like 1-800-Collect create trademark property rights that can legally be bought or sold like any other property.
  • Toll-Free numbers can be legally transferred between subscribers
  • Influence rules. There are two sets of rules at the big distributors, as always; Big players rule and little guys fooled.

You may find some of the early recommendations dated and quaint in the FCC filings that follow, as reduced frivolous use rendered toll-free numbers far more available over past decade.

Yet, one recommendation endures: If it ever becomes necessary to move to an eight-digit dialing plan, adding the eighth digit to the end of existing phone numbers would expand the universe of available numbers without disrupting the address space -- and vanity toll-free design -- of every business in North America (i.e. 1-800-Flowers can elect to remain 1-800-Flowers or become 1-800-Flowers-1, while unassigned numbers are issued in the eight-digit format adding millions and millions of available numbers).