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The History of 800 Numbers

Learn the history behind the numbers

When AT&T launched their “automated collect calling” option in 1967, they implemented it as a way to ease the load from their overworked staff of phone operator. Like Victor Frankenstein and Eli Whitney before them, they had no idea what their humble invention would grow to become.

Early Years (1967 to 1984)

At first, this “toll-free calling” was little more than a novelty, an alternative to calling collect. The first business use of an 800 number was by a company that hosted numbers for existing major companies – mostly national hotel and car rental chains. When that company went out of business, their clients quickly established their own call centers using 800 numbers.

Though 800 numbers grew as a business tool during this era, their usage faced one major challenge. AT&T held a monopoly on them, and charged a premium many times those of regular calls for the service. However, the “bad old days” of phone company monopolies would not last forever.

Regulation and Expansion (1984 to 1994)

In 1984, a federal judge ordered the monopoly that was “Ma Bell” into more than a dozen regional companies. Competition for long-distance rates including 800 numbers caused rates to plummet. Companies that previously could not afford an 800 number found them affordable, and adopted them as a standard business practice.

The vanity number emerged shortly after the break up. With this innovation, customers could choose their phone number, linked to the numeric keypad codes. Thus such unforgettable numbers as 1-800-95-JENNY and 1-800-PICK-UPS were born. A 1994 law guaranteed phone number portability between carriers. This allowed a company with a good 800-number mnemonic to keep it despite changing providers.

Explosion (1994 to 2000)

During this period, having a toll-free number shifted from an advantage enjoyed by major players to a necessity for companies operating on a regional level. This caused an explosion in the demand for 800-numbers that outstripped the 10,000,000 number supply. To meet the demand, 888 numbers were introduced in 1996; 877 and 866 numbers debuted in 1998 and 1999; 855 numbers were the most recent, in 2010. Growth in demand slowed with the popularity of cell phones, but it hasn’t subsided.

The Information Age (2000 to ?)

The internet and cell phone boom changed the landscape of business communication, but not so much that toll-free numbers aren’t part of the scenery. Where 800 numbers and their equivalents were once a token offering to customers, they are now a symbol of professionalism and establishment. Services that route an 800 number directly to your personal cell phone are a hallmark of this era. For a few dollars per month, even a sole proprietor working alone out of a garage office can have the same kind of phone number as a Fortune 500 company.

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