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A Brief History of Toll-Free Phone Numbers

What Are Toll-Free Numbers, and Where Did They Come From?

We all know a Toll-Free number when we see one. Hack, some of us who couldn’t even remember their own phone number if their life depended on it can chirrup the Domino’s Pizza 1-800 as if they'd written the darn jingle themselves!

But the toll-free numbers we know and love today actually had their humble origins in a service called ‘Interstate INWARD WATS’, designed by AT&T way back when Disney’s ‘Jungle Book’ was burning the silver screen and Party Costumes were the latest fad in 1967. You see, back then, if someone called collect (read: had the person he was calling foot the bill), the call was routed to an operator, who had to contact the other party for approval.

The thing is, as more and more collect calls were being placed to businesses, the poor operators simply couldn’t keep up to satisfy the demand. What's more, since no business owner in their right minds would have answered ‘No!’ to incoming business, the need for constant authorization has become redundant, and INWARD WATS was introduced to automate the collect calling process and relieve the operators of this burden.

Little did they know at the time that this new feature was destined to revolutionize the business marketing world only a decade later.

From Niche to Mainstream

Initially the service had a limited appeal because, with the way 800 calls were processed, different numbers had to be used in different states. But in 1981 a new processing method and a centralized data-base surmounted this hurdle and enabled the use of a single 1-800 number flat across the nation. That’s when the full potential of auto-collect-calling became apparent and demand started to sky-rocket.

Shaking-off the Shackles

In 1993, an FCC order severed the link between 1-800 numbers and telephone providers, demanding that all toll-free numbers be portable, and thereby enabling business customers to take their numbers with them when making a switch. This obliterated the last disadvantage as companies no longer had to worry about gearing their advertising around a number that might not be around down the road.

Additional 8-- Prefix Introduced and Others Earmarked for the Future

With 800 combinations fast depleting and an end in sight, the 888 was named as the next official toll-free prefix in 1995. The rest of the 8-- series were reserved for the future. 877 followed in 1998, 866 in 2000, and finally 855 in 2010. That’s the latest at the time of this writing.

Toll-Free Numbers Today

Though the scene has changed dramatically over the 30 or so years since toll-free numbers experienced their first boom, and though today many transactions can be completed over the web without ever picking up the phone, Toll-free numbers still have their place in everyday business—both for practical reasons and for the prestige they’ve gained over the years.

What’s more, with modern advances in telephony technology (such as hosted PBX products and VoIP calling) not only are toll-free numbers easier and cheaper to come by—the entire underlying structure of accepting collect calls is, for the first time, affordable enough to come within the reach of small-business pocketbooks. Now that’s exciting!

To read more about toll-free numbers and how you can get your own, check out the posts below.

Related Articles:

  1. Why Your Business Needs a Toll-Free Phone Number
  2. Does Your Business Need a Vanity Phone Number?



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posted by Maty Grosman @ 4:27 PM