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Businesses want your call, and a good way for them to get it is to make that call free. Back in the days of slow-returning rotary phones, long before the advent of “touch-tone,” engineers at Bell Labs were thinking hard about future call convenience. The system they devised—which includes 800 numbers—still stands today in this digital age of Skype, VoIP, and cell phones.

“COLLECT” AND “ZENITH” CALLING

Before toll-free numbers, the only way to call free of charge was to call collect. This reversed the charges so that the receiving party paid for the call, not the person placing it. Prior to toll-free numbers, some companies allowed collect calls from customers, but it was a cumbersome way to attract business because the call had to go through the operator.

In the 1950s, a “Zenith number” published and advertised by some companies got you straight through to the operator, who would then look up a big paper directory and place the equivalent of a collect call manually to the receiving number at the relevant area code. This was toll-free for the customer, but certainly far from hassle free.

NORTH AMERICAN NUMBERING PLAN (NANP)

Developed by Bell and AT&T in 1940s, the NANP divided North America into 86 numbering areas defined by three-digit codes, beginning area code 201 (New Jersey) and ending area code 916 (far-northern California). They cleverly arranged the NANP so that the largest population areas were the quickest to dial on a rotary phone. Utah was assigned 801, but none of the regular area codes ended in a 0, as the astute Bell engineers had kept those ranges aside for special purposes.

Later, these reserved “non-geographic number” ranges—including the magic 800—would come into their own. Why 800, specifically? Probably because the number 8 corresponded with the letter T, for “Toll-free,” on a standard phone dial.

INWATS AND AUTOMATED COLLECT CALLING

In the early 1960s, Ken Looloian, AT&T’s head of planning, had a clever idea to cut costs by using electronic switching. In 1967, AT&T rolled out its long-distance “Inward Wide Area Telephone Service” (InWATS) service nationwide. With InWATS, businesses and organizations could “subscribe” (for an expensive, fixed-rate line fee) and receive a number from the toll-free range.

Because of the high cost—ensured by AT&T’s initial monopoly on the service—only large call volume outfits, such as Sheraton and National Data Corp., went for it at first. And it was still a primitive setup by today’s standards. Toll-free numbers were tied to specific geographic areas, forcing serious “subscribers” to pay for up to 20 numbers if they wanted to cover the entire U.S.

Nevertheless, the InWATS service meant that customers could at last direct-dial companies via 800 numbers. Thanks to the automated switching equipment, what was effectively a collect call paid for by the subscriber no longer required operator assistance. This was great news for customers, but probably not so peachy for those polite, trusty, jack-plugging operators.

ENTER THE OTHER MR. 800

The costly, clumsy system was slow to catch on until, in the mid-’70s, AT&T engineer Roy Weber made a big breakthrough in toll-free calling technology. Though computer-controlled digital switching was still in its infancy, Weber’s bold concept (which his supervisor thought was a “dumb idea”) was to point non-geographic numbers at database files. In this way, a number could act as an index code to pull up a specific file, which could then instruct the switchgear to route the call correctly to anywhere. (Unfortunately for Mr. Weber’s pocketbook, AT&T Bell Labs took on the patent rights to all their employees’ inventions there.)

THE 800 AND VANITY NUMBER BOOM

In the early 1980s, using Weber’s insight, AT&T centralized its databases. This was the spark that lit the 800 boom, as it meant that companies could now have a single, nationwide 800 number instead of multiple, state-specific ones. The 800 number became a mark of prestige for companies, and competitive pressures ensured that the service flourished.

It wasn’t long before subscribers got imaginative with their toll-free numbers, choosing catchy “phoneword” combinations, like 1-800-FLOWERS or 1-800-COOKIES. These “vanity number” combinations were easier for customers to remember than were long strings of digits. And thanks to touch-tone phones, they were now quick to dial, no matter where they would have landed on the dial of an old rotary phone.

In 1993, 800 numbers became truly portable, no longer tied to a particular carrier. This gave subscribers a much greater choice of memorable and vanity numbers. Due to huge demand, new U.S. toll-free prefixes now include 888, 877, 866, 855 and 844, as well as the original 800.

A WORLD OF 800

Gradually, countries the world over adopted the convention of using an 800 prefix to designate toll-free numbers. An early pioneer of reverse-charge calling and automatic switching, the UK used 0800 for its “Linkline” (later, “freephone”) service which began in 1985 through British Telecom.

In order to free up the greatly prized 0800, BT transferred it across from its previous incarnation as the area code for the remote village of Tongue in the far north of Scotland. Kind of appropriate, in a strange sort of way.

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