History Lesson: How Toll-Free Numbers Changed the Way We Do Business

Posted by Daniel McFarland on Sep 10, 2015 10:00:00 AM
Daniel McFarland

Whether you’ve had to make a call to contact a customer service representative, or vote for your favorite reality singing competitor, you shouldn’t be a stranger to toll-free numbers. We’ve seen them take all kinds of forms, from numbers starting with 1-800 or 1-888, to numbers that even include letters, like 1-800-KIPLING. If you recognize that last number, you’re likely a history buff with an interest in early 20th century literature. Read into the history of toll-free numbers

Today, you history enthusiasts are in luck. This post will be covering the history of 800 numbers before we get into more detail on what this service has to offer. So, hop in the DeLorean, pop in a Huey Lewis cassette tape, and join me as we go back in time to cover the history of toll-free numbers.


The Beginning of Toll-Free Service

AT&T introduced the concept of “800” toll-free services in 1967 with the name “inbound WATS” (Wide Area Telephone Service). WATS was originally a service made for advertisers to provide an alternative to “reverse charges”, or collect calls, for their potential customers.

This service also came with a feature similar to Caller ID for business owners. This feature allowed marketers to know where their customers were located based on area codes, giving them the ability to strategize marketing options. As such, the inbound WATS service was innovative as well as beneficial for customers and marketers alike.

Monopolies Crumble and Competitions Rise

Toll-free services became available in 1964.In 1984, Prince controlled the billboard charts; the world did not become a dystopian future as predicted by George Orwell; and AT&T had monopolized the toll-free service industry. While controlling the majority of 800 numbers, AT&T made it incredibly difficult for emerging companies who needed affordable telecommunications.

MFJ (Modification of Final Judgment ) was enacted to allow IXCs (Interexchange Carriers) to compete by forcing AT&T to itemize 800 service costs that were once offered in a competitive bundle. MFJ effectively opened the doors to a competitive market with lower telecommunications costs.

The Number Well Dries Up

The SMS800 database made it possible to port numbers.By 1994, 800 numbers became very desirable and very affordable thanks to the introduction of portability. Portability let end users transfer telephone numbers to different carriers with lower rates while keeping their existing number. This was made possible by the SMS800 (Service Management System) database. Along with portability, SMS800 also gave toll-free subscribers the ability to check the availability of numbers, and what carriers provided these numbers. Subscribers could now seek the availability of certain numbers, purchase them, then port carriers.

With the desirability of 800 numbers skyrocketing at low rates, especially for easy-to-remember “vanity” numbers (such as 1-800-LUV-VOIP, or 1-800-NUMBERS), number hoarding soon began. In 1994, all available 800 numbers were taken, thus the 888 number was born. However, it didn't take long for 888 numbers to become scarce. Eventually, more numbers became available, including 877, 866, 855, and 844.

(Information gathered from History of Toll Free Service,Telecompute) 


 Ever since the conception of the toll-free service, 800 numbers have been an indispensable tool for customer communication. With 833 and 822 numbers reserved for toll-free use, it’s apparent that the service shows no sign of stopping. Today, with RespOrgs (Responsible Organizations) combining toll-free services and internet accessibility, customers can reach businesses with greater convenience than ever before.  

If you’re interested in becoming a toll-free subscriber, stay tuned! In the next post, we’ll be going over 10 Questions You should Ask Your Toll-Free Provider.

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Tags: Telephone, Toll-Free, VoIP

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