Many consumers prefer voice contact with businesses over working through the internet. Therefore, businesses continue to subscribe to toll free numbers to interact with their customers. In the early days of telephone communication, toll-free numbers did not exist. However, as telephone systems changed from electro-mechanical call switching to computerized networks, modern-day toll-free calling developed. This article discusses the history of toll-free numbers.
Calling Collect Using the Operator
Before toll-free numbers, a person had to dial the operator and place a collect call. Then, the called party had to accept the charges. It is still possible to place a collect call through the operator, and it is a common occurrence from payphones and prison calls. In the 1950s, in the US and Canada, Zenith, Enterprise, or WX numbers came into vogue, and the Freephone numbers started in the UK in 1960. Companies willing to accept charges subscribed to these new types of numbers, and local directories in limited areas listed them. Callers dialed local operators and told them the numbers, like Zenith 1-2345. The operators looked up the numbers and placed the calls.
Incoming Wide Area Telephone Service
On May 2, 1967, AT&T introduced the Incoming Wide Area Telephone Service (INWATS). Subscribers to the INWATS numbers paid monthly fees based on call duration and distance. At the end of AT&T’s monopoly in 1974, the telephone company of the callee affected the fees. The INWATS numbers used an 800 area code, and the three-digit exchange was linked to the destination carrier. The INWATS service was expensive, and primarily large, high-volume enterprises, including hotel and car rental chains, subscribed to the numbers.
The Breakup of AT&T and New Microwave Technology
In the 1970s and 1980s, several factors combined to reduce the cost of long distance and stimulate an increase in toll free numbers.
- In 1974, a United States antitrust case against AT&T led to the 1982 breakup of AT&T into seven independent local networks or “Baby Bells”.
- Cheap microwave communications technology in the 1960s and 1970s allowed companies like Microwave Communications Incorporated (MCI) to sell communications services to large companies.
- Telephone companies began using computerized switching systems. Thereafter, instructions in databases directed incoming calls.
Modern Direct-Dial Systems
With the advent of computerized switching systems, telephone companies could direct toll free calls anywhere. AT&T began promoting toll free service to small and medium businesses since long distance calling was still expensive in the 1980s. In the United Kingdom during 1985, direct dial of toll free service started.
The Evolution of 800 Numbers
The history and evolution of toll free numbers dates from 1967 when big businesses began using them. In 1986, Pacific Bell introduced vanity numbers, and in 1993, the FCC mandated the portability of toll free numbers. With portability, a person or business can keep their telephone number when they change telephone companies.
As toll free 800 grew in popularity, there was a need for additional 800 numbers. In 1996, 888 became available, 877 in 1998, 866 in 2000, 855 in 2010, and 844 in 2013.
Vanity Toll Free Numbers
Vanity numbers are easily remembered due to phrases related to a business like 1-800-BUY-BEER, numerical patterns like 1-561-777-7777, or clever use of a homophone like 1-800-4-ZIPCAR. According to a 2011 survey by 800response.com, mnemonic vanity numbers, where the digits spell a word, are 75% easier to remember than numeric toll free numbers. This is because the potential caller can associate the work with the business to be called. For numeric vanity toll free numbers, repeating patterns of digits are easier to remember than random digits. In addition, some number patterns can be associated with events to make them easier to remember. For example, 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence, resonates with US citizens.
Shared Use Vanity Toll Free Numbers
Shared use vanity toll free numbers are owned by one company and are leased to businesses in different locations. For example, a Van Nuys, CA company owns the number 1-800-TAXICAB. Calls to that number are directed to taxi companies who lease the number according to the area code of the caller. One drawback is that shared use numbers are more expensive than other toll free numbers.
FCC Regulations in the United States
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates toll free numbers in the United States. Although the FCC mandates the portability of toll free numbers, they are not involved in the assignment of the numbers, nor can they provide information on a number’s status. Hoarding or brokering of toll free numbers is prohibited.
“Responsible Organizations” or “RespOrgs” have access to a toll-free number database and they assign the toll free numbers. Samos, Inc (1-844-HEY-SOMOS) is the administrator of the database in North America, and it certifies the “RespOrgs”. Global Call Forwarding is a “RespOrg” that provides toll free numbers and call forwarding services to its subscribers.
Numeric Toll Free Numbers, Conditions, and Restrictions
The types of toll free numbers, their conditions, and restrictions vary from country to country. For example, in the US, Global Call Forwarding offers two types of toll free numbers, Toll Free and Geographic.
Callers can dial a Toll Free number from landlines, mobile phones, pay phones, and fax transmissions. However, persons in other countries cannot dial the numbers. In addition, the FCC mandates an access fee of $0.69 per call from payphones.
With a Geographic number, callers can dial numbers from landlines, mobile phones, pay phones, other countries, and fax transmissions. There is an optional feature that allows SMS text messages to be sent to the subscriber’s email. The Geographic numbers have area codes of localities. This gives subscribers a virtual presence in those areas.
Some examples of toll free numbers in other countries are in subsequent paragraphs.
In China, Global Call Forwarding offers the following toll free numbers: Toll Free, National, Mobile (SMS Optional), and Geographic. Callers can only dial the Toll Free numbers from landlines and fax transmissions. Callers can dial the other numbers from landlines, mobile phones, pay phones, other countries, and fax transmissions.
In India, Global Call Forwarding offers only Toll Free numbers. Callers can dial from landlines, pay phones and fax transmissions. However, the callers’ phones must have international direct dial capabilities.
In Brazil, Global Call Forwarding offers Toll Free, Toll Free (mobile accessible), Mobile (SMS Optional), and Geographic numbers. Callers can dial the Toll Free numbers from landline and fax transmissions, and Toll Free (mobile accessible) from landlines, mobile phones, and fax transmissions. Callers can dial Mobile (SMS Optional) and Geographic numbers from landlines, mobile phones, pay phones, other countries, and fax transmissions.
In Pakistan, companies such as Global Call Forwarding offers only Geographic numbers. Callers can dial from landlines, mobile phones, payphones, other countries, and fax transmissions. However, numbers are restricted to Pakistani nationals, and a copy of the Pakistani National ID card is required.
About the Author
Ned Isaacs is a seasoned consultant for batteries, management, and technical writing. He retired from his position as general manager of Mine Safety Appliances (MSA) Special Battery Facility. Now that he is retired, he writes web content for Global Call Forwarding and Sensor Products.