- 1984: TOLL FREE SERVICES “UNBUNDLED” BY MFJ
- 1994: PORTABILITY MANDATED
- 1996: “888” SERVICE INTRODUCED
- 1997: UNIFORM INTERNATIONAL FREEPHONE NUMBERING
1967: Toll Free Service Introduced by AT&T
“800” service, originally termed “inbound WATS” (for Wide Area Telephone Service) was introduced by AT&T as an alternative to advertisers suggesting that callers “reverse the charges” when calling for information related to their products or services. Prospective customers were reluctant to reverse the charges, either because they thought it would make them appear “cheap”, or because they didn’t want to feel obligated to buy something. In the intervening 30 years, “800” service has become much more than just a means of paying for a call.
Because there is a business relationship between the caller and the entity paying for the call, the sponsor is entitled to have the telephone number of the caller – regardless of whether they have “Caller ID Blocking” or any other such locally elected service. That telephone number, complete with area code, allows all sorts of value added processing to take place. Examples include routing calls from certain areas of the country to specially designated destinations. You can block calls from areas of the country where you don’t support or market products. More recently, you can even decide which calls you want to answer (and those you don’t) based upon any criteria you choose – linked to the individual telephone number.
In 1984, AT&T was forced to spin off local telephone services under the terms of a consent decree with the Justice Department. The rules governing this divestiture were laid out in a Modified Final Judgement (MFJ) issued by District Court Judge Harold Greene. One of the terms of the MFJ was that in order for other Interexchange Carriers (IXCs) to compete for the business of very large corporations under special pricing referred to as Tariff 12, AT&T could no longer make competitive offers for a “package” of telephone services without “breaking out” or itemizing the costs associated with 800 service. (With a 17 year head start, AT&T controlled the majority of 800 numbers which were rapidly becoming essential to those same large corporations negotiating for lower telecommunications costs.) “Unbundled” service forced negotiations related to 800 pricing out in the open, and paved the way for lower pricing in competitive markets.
The term “portability” is used to describe the ability for a telephone number subscriber to transfer service from one carrier to another, while still retaining control over the number itself. Prior to portability, the local exchange carrier (LEC) knew which Interexchange Carrier (IXC) to transfer the 800 number to by the first three digits (NXX) following the 800 Service Access Code (SAC). (e.g. 800-222-1234 used to be an AT&T 800 exchange.)
In 1994, portability came to 800 service. It was achieved through the use of a large database which held the identity of the subscriber’s carrier, for each and every 800 number in existence. As soon as an 800 number is dialed, the LEC performs a data “dip” into the SMS/800 database maintaining these records, and transfers the call, along with information indicating the number dialed, to the carrier providing service for that 800 number.
With portability, subscribers were free to “shop” the costs for their 800 service, and transfer to a carrier with cheaper rates. The introduction of portability had some additional and unwanted effects. When the IXC controlled the NXXs assigned to them, they also bore the costs of provisioning or enabling new 800 service numbers. Estimated costs were $1 Million per NXX or group of 10,000 numbers. With substantially lower provisioning costs, smaller carriers offered service with substantially lower carrying costs for installing and maintaining 800 numbers. Faced with very small costs associated with installing, but not using, 800 numbers, hoarding began as individuals sought to “spell” a wonderful vanity number and sell it to a higher bidder.
After operating successfully for 27 years, the 800 numbering system was exhausted (ran out of 800 numbers) just two years after the enactment of portability.
With the “800” Service Access Code (SAC) exhausted, “888” was introduced in 1996 to provide additional toll free access numbers.
Although many new numbers were created, what about the “old” 800 numbers which consumers had come to identify with? Was 800-FLOWERS to lose business to a brash upstart operating as 888-FLOWERS? After much debate, including the preposterous proposal to “auction” them as a national resource (some congressional delegates overlooked the fact that the toll free system is part of the NORTH AMERICAN NUMBERING PLAN, and no one bothered to ask the Canadians how they felt about the U.S. auctioning off a North American resource) it was decided that 800 subscribers would be given a period in which to protest the issuance of an 888 number identical to their 800 number. Of course, some missed the deadline, appealed, and were given an extension.
To this day, those numbers requested to be “frozen” by the 800 sponsor, remain unavailable.
Universal International Freephone Numbering (UIFN) (+800-XXXX-XXXX) goes into effect on or about February 2, 1997. The arrangement is a mixture of features and protocols already operating in the North American Numbering Plan, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Service Access Codes (SAC), and foreign Postal, Telephone & Telegraph (PTT) authorities. The + portion of the number indicates the International Access Code (IAC) or dialing sequence necessary to exit the country you are dialing from. (e.g. 011 to make an international call from the U.S. or 00 from England.) 800 is the nongeographic code assigned by the ITU specifically to UIFN. It is similar to the SAC 800 used throughout the North American Numbering Plan to indicate a type of service. Like U.S. domestic 800, a caller to +800 won’t know where the call is terminating unless the sponsor tells them. The eight (8) digits following the IAC + SAC make up the telephone number. Before you rush to your computer to start forming dialing analogues or international vanity numbers, consider this:
Many countries don’t have letters on their dialing pads
There are currently only 150,000 toll free #s outside North America
World wide DTMF (touch tone) penetration runs 60%-70%
It will cost $160+ to apply for each number with no guarantees
Still interested? In the U.S. you must make your application through one of four licensed International Record Carriers (IRCs), acting as Recognized Operating Agencies (ROAs): AT&T, MCI, Sprint, and MFS WorldCom. To gain preference in assignment, your 800 number must have been installed prior to December 1994. 888 Numbers don’t count. With 9 Million numbers installed in the U.S. and Canada, and 150,000 throughout the rest of the world, North Americans have a good chance at maintaining control over their “branded” analogues. Other sponsors will need to contact their PTT. Most carriers are accepting applications now, the first application deadline is December 1996 and assignments will be made in February, 1997. Installations cannot be made until after number assignment, with early participating countries likely to be concentrated in North America and Western Europe.