By Patricia Horn
Sun-Sentinel, South Florida
Would you have to pay for that call, or is it toll-free? Don't know? Who could? With new area codes coming out at a dizzying pace, it's hard to keep them straight. And it's going to get worse.
On Sunday, 877 is scheduled to debut as the newest toll-free number, following 800 and 888. It took 28 years to use up 7.9 million 800 numbers. It will have taken two years for 888 to run out. It's expected to take even less time for the 877 numbers to dwindle - 866 is the next toll-free code scheduled to begin at the end of 1999.
As wireless phones, pagers, businesses, fax machines, modems and families wanting second phone lines grab numbers at an ever-increasing rate, older dialing codes such as 800, 212, 202 and 305 are becoming coveted resources.
``It used to be that a phone number had no value because it was a commodity, and you didn't think twice about it,'' said Niles Burton, vice president for Teleport Communications in Florida. ``But now it does. ... There will be a vanity associated with having certain area codes.''
Businesses, which have come to rely heavily on 800 numbers for customer support and sales, worry that no one will recognize 877 as a free number, an echo of the concern they had with 888.
They worry that if another business gets the same number with 877 that they have with 800 or 888, they could end up paying for a lot of misdials. Worse, if they have a ``vanity number'' that describes their business (like 1-800-CAR-RENT), a misdial could send customers to a competitor.
Some members of Congress, the Small Business Administration and businesses have asked federal regulators to delay the 877 roll-out for a few months to reconsider the whole system, and perhaps find a cure for the common code. But they can't delay for long. 888 is running out.
``877 sounds like a regular area code,'' said Mike Jankowski, a telecommunications attorney who represents large companies with toll-free numbers. ``If you are a company that wants a toll-free number, and you get 877, what's its value if customers don't understand it's free, so no one calls?''
In 1967, AT&T, then the nation's only national phone company, invented the 800 phone prefix to relieve the burden of operators handling collect calls to businesses. Toll-free use has soared since: AT& T carried 7 million toll-free calls in 800's first year. In 1996, it carried 20 billion, 40 percent of all calls AT& T handled.
Cost, which has fallen dramatically in the last decade, accelerated their popularity. A small business can get a toll-free number for $5 a month plus the per-minute charge. ``Small businesses see toll-free numbers as an economic way for the marketplace to contact them. It's another front door to their business,'' said John Cushman, AT&T's director of toll-free services. ``Even pizzerias have toll-free numbers.''
In addition, families are ordering toll-free numbers for their children to call home. Business people who travel frequently are using 800-follow-me numbers that track them to their work numbers, cell phone or voice mail, all in one call. Pagers and voice mail are gobbling up toll-free numbers, as are new services such as home-security systems.
David S. Alcott, president of Downtown Travel Centre in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had an 800 number for his business in the early 1990s. He dropped it because it was expensive and few people called, but in 1995, Alcott ordered a new one.
``You have to have the 800 number now. People refer us to their cousins in St. Louis, and they call Downtown Travel using the 800 number,'' Alcott said. ``People won't call collect, no matter what you say. They prefer the 800 number.''
But will they call 877? Telecommunications consultants and executives are advising companies to aggressively advertise that their 877 numbers are free calls. They also expect more companies to get vanity numbers, numbers like 1-800-FLOWERS to help make numbers memorable in a country where people are on number overload.
Number proliferation is also creating a shortage of ``premium'' numbers in the business world, turning 800 and other well-recognized area codes into prestige addresses much like having a business on Fifth Avenue in New York.
What business wouldn't prefer 800 to 877? Last year, the Federal Communications Commission made it illegal for companies to sell 800 or 888 numbers, bowing to complaints that companies were being gouged for large sums when they sought out valuable vanity numbers.
Traditionally, companies do not sell phone numbers. They assign them on a first-come, first-served basis. But buying and selling of regular toll phone numbers happens all the time, said Judith Oppenheimer, a guru of toll-free numbers and president/editor of ICB Toll Free News.
``Numbers have value. To think they do not have value is just absurd.'' In the toll-free world, 800 has value and 888 and 877 do not, she said. ``I'll put it to you like this: I make a new soda, it's the same color as Coca-Cola with just as many bubbles. It tastes better. But can it dent the Coca-Cola market? 800 triggers calls that 888 does not even though people may be aware 888 is toll free.''
Alcott, whose toll-free number starts with 800, agrees. ``I'd prefer 800 first, 888 second and 877 last,'' he said. ``People recognize 800.''
(c) 1998, Sun-Sentinel, South Florida.