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1-800-Vanish

New regulations may mean the loss of trademark numbers

By Jonathan Boorstein

Companies whose brand identities depend on their 800 mnemonics are fixing for a fight just in case the rumblings about strengthened prohibitions against warehousing, hoarding and releasing toll-free numbers for a fee come true.

And they very well might, says telecommunications consultant Judith Oppenheimer, who notes the Federal Communications Commission has asked the North American Number Council (NANC) to look at enforcing those regulations.

The implications such an action would have in regard to delivering telemarketing services, maintaining the integrity of trademarked numbers (like 1-800-FLOWERS), and grandfathering such numbers into 888 could be disastrous, she maintains.

Not that the international freephone would have been otherwise without problems. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) only allows recognized operating agencies (ROAs) to submit applications for International Freephone Service (IFS).

According to Oppenheimer, American ROAs insist marketers have to port their 800 domestic service through the ROA to get a freephone. This, she says, is but one example of a situation she describes as anti-competitive.

For other consultants, the February 1 deadline for setting aside vanity or trademarked numbers was top priority. As Loren Stocker of Vanity International in Chicago explains, ITU regulations state that such numbers must be reserved as numbers; "alphabetics" will not be accepted.

Starting this month, the unreserved numbers will go into a general pool.

For her part, Oppenheimer is taking aim at user apathy and bureaucratic secrecy with Toll Free News, a Web site of telemarketing news and opinion.

The FCC's rationale for what Oppenheimer calls overregulation is conservation and efficiency. Apparently the FCC is wary of anything that recognizes commercial or propriety interests in specific numbers and uses - practices that have been pursued and recognized unofficially for years.

(Experts agree it's unlikely the telecommunications industry could function without these unofficial rules, governing areas ranging from telemarketing companies that warehouse and release numbers for a fee, delivery services to consumers and marketers, and such shared-use marketing companies as 1-800-DENTIST that release a number for a fee.)

The FCC would like to auction off these hoarded numbers to raise revenues for the government. According to Stocker, Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY), among others, has questioned the legality and propriety of a federal agency executing a decision that affects some 30 sovereign, independent states.

That issue notwithstanding, Oppenheimer maintains auctioning telephone numbers is not quite the same thing as auctioning off radio waves.

Unlike radio wave bands, there have always been certain numbers and numerical combinations that are regarded as good and others that are not.

For example, seven is lucky in the European-American tradition and 13 unlucky; eight is lucky in the Asian tradition and four unlucky (it's often equated with death).

The fact that different numbers have different meanings in different cultures is less important to most than maintaining brand recognition. On Oppenheimer's Web site, she cites the example of Similac and Racing Systems Ltd. - 800-FORMULA and 888-FORMULA respectively.

"These are two unhappy toll-free users - one losing business, the other incurring the cost of unwanted misdials," she says.

Situations like these help make a case for replication - "or better yet, separate domains," she adds.

The problem is that companies that want to telemarket globally may not be able to use the same number around the world. Since most toll-free numbers are used or claimed by Americans, the ITU wanted to level the "playing field."

But the problem may be compounded for domestic marketers, for a new global number will likely be useless domestically because it would have to be dialed as an international call.

More immediate on the international toll-free front is the identity of the ROAs. The usual suspects are represented: Sprint, MCI and AT&T;. Some experts claim LDDS is the fourth ROA. As Stocker notes, this means DMers do have a choice.

However, no one, not even the people in the ITU who should have the information, seems to know if that's the entire list or just a portion.