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The History of Toll-Free Numbers: It’s Colorful – and Still Being Written

Toll-free numbers are such a big part of SendMyCall that some people mistakenly assume SendMyCall invented them.

Actually, credit for the invention of toll-free numbers goes to American Telephone & Telegraph Company – better known as AT&T.

AT&T gave birth to them way back in 1967.

At that time, the telecom giant offered toll-free numbers as a value-add for its best business customers. We’re talking really big corporations, those with tons of money to spend, because toll-free numbers then weren’t affordable like they are now. It took a sizeable investment of capital to acquire and keep just one.

Even so, a lot of big businesses in the Sixties thought the idea of toll-free numbers was groovy enough to justify the cost. They recognized that giving customers the means to call them long-distance for free would result in more customers (and potential ones too) picking up the phone and dialing headquarters or the sales office to engage in abundantly more commerce.

So popular did this arrangement become that, by the end of the 1970s, there were some 3 million toll-free numbers assigned by AT&T.

AT&T was, by the way, the only source of toll-free numbers in North America. If you wanted one, you had to go through AT&T.

The U.S. government wasn’t too happy about this situation. To the feds, this was yet another of many examples of AT&T’s unfair monopoly power.

So, in the early 1980s, the government ended AT&T’s monopoly by forcing the company to split into a number of small, unrelated, regional outfits.

Among the services available through those regional telecoms: toll-free numbers. Demand for their toll-free offerings surged as the cost of toll-free numbers decreased (an effect of eliminating AT&T’s stranglehold on pricing).

Remember a minute ago I said there were 3 million toll-free numbers in use by the end of the 1970s? Well, by the end of the 1980s, there were about three times as many toll-free numbers assigned.

Breathtaking, yes. Unfortunately, though, the number of toll-free numbers that could continue to be assigned in North America was fast running out.

That problem was solved by creating a new toll-free North American numbering plan. Up until that point, toll-free numbers began with an 800 code. In 1996, code 888 was added. In so doing, many millions more toll-free numbers became available overnight.

Something else happened in the 1990s that spurred the introduction of code 888. It was a U.S. law requiring phone companies to ensure the portability of the toll-free numbers they assigned.

This new law said that if you originally obtained a toll-free number from Company A and wanted to switch to a less expensive toll-free plan offered by Company B, Company A had to let you take your old toll-free number with you.

The portability requirement caused phone companies to ramp up their competition against one another in a fevered bid for new customers. This led to further price drops, which in turn fueled more demand for toll-free phone numbers.

Toward the late Nineties, they were running out of code 888 numbers. So in 1998 they added code 877. A year after that came code 866.

Everything went swimmingly for the next decade until assignable North American toll-free numbers again became scarce. Accordingly, in 2010, code 855 was introduced, followed in 2013 by 844. Code 833 debuted just last June.

If it’s true that past is prelude, they’re probably already drawing up the plan to eventually add a code 822.

What’s interesting is that the thing that originally drove businesses to clamor for toll-free numbers has largely faded away: as noted earlier, businesses wanted toll-free numbers to enable customers and prospects to call them long-distance without charge.

But nowadays it’s no more expensive to pick up the phone and place a long-distance call across North America than it is to dial a neighbor across the street. You’d think that would make toll-free numbers obsolete.

They’re not.

Why, then, do businesses continue to want toll-free numbers? Two reasons. First, standard international long-distance calling is still expensive. International toll-free numbers make this problem disappear.

Second, toll-free numbers are still very much an image enhancer. Having a toll-free number makes your business look super-professional. It also makes your business look large-scale (because customers continue to mentally associate toll-free numbers with Big Business).

For these reasons, toll-free numbers are here to stay. Their colorful history will continue to be written – and SendMyCall will help it get written by making sure the pen remains fully inked.