Toll-free telephone number

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A toll-free telephone number or freephone number is a telephone number that is billed for all arriving calls instead of incurring charges to the originating telephone subscriber. For the calling party the call to a toll-free number is free of charge.

A toll-free, Freecall, Freephone, 800, 0800 or 1-800 number is identified by a dialing prefix similar to a geographic area code, such as 800. The specific service access numbers vary by country.

History[edit]

The features of toll-free services have evolved as telephone networks have moved from electro-mechanical call switching to fully computerized stored program controlled networks.

Originally, a call billed to the called party had to be placed through a telephone company operator as a collect call. The operator had to secure acceptance of the charges at the remote number before manually completing the call.

A few large businesses and government offices received large numbers of collect calls, which proved time consuming for operators.

Manual toll-free systems[edit]

Prior to the development of automated toll-free service many telephone companies provided a manual version of caller free service.

Examples of operator-assisted toll-free calling include the Zenith number introduced in the 1950s in the US and Canada, as well as the original manual 'Freephone' service introduced by the British Post Office in 1960.[1]

Both systems were similar in concept. The calling party would ring the operator (now '100' in the UK, '0' in Canada/USA) and ask for a specific free number. In the US, the caller would ask for a number like "Zenith 1-2345" (some areas used "Enterprise" or "WX" instead of "Zenith", but in the same pattern of a free service name and a five-digit number). In the UK, the caller would ask the operator to ring "Freephone" and a name or number (such as "Freephone Crimebusters" to pass on tips about a crime to the constabulary[2]).

In either case, the operator would look up the corresponding geographic number from a list and place the call with charges reversed.

A Zenith number typically was available from a predefined area, anything from a few nearby cities to a province or state, and was listed in local directories in each community from which the subscriber was willing to accept the charges for inbound calls.

Until the introduction of InWATS toll-free service by the Bell System on May 2, 1967 and the Linkline (later "Freefone") 0800 services by British Telecom on 12 November 1985, manually ringing the operator was the standard means to place a toll-free call. More than a few established manual "Freephone" or "Zenith" numbers remained in use for many years after competing automated systems (0800 in UK, 1-800 in US) were deployed in parallel for new toll-free numbers.

Initial direct-dial systems[edit]

An automated toll-free service was introduced by AT&T on May 2, 1967 as an alternative to operator-assisted collect calling and manual "Zenith" or "Enterprise" numbers. This Inward Wide Area Telephone Service (InWATS) allowed calls to be made directly from anywhere in a predefined area by dialling the prefix 1-800- and a seven-digit number.

The system was primitive by modern standards. It initially provided no support for Automatic Number Identification and no itemised record of calls, instead requiring subscribers obtain expensive fixed-rate lines which included some number of hours of inbound calling from a "band" of one or multiple states or provinces. Early InWATS 800 calling lacked the complex routing features offered with modern toll-free service. The three digit exchange following the 800 prefix was linked to a specific destination carrier and area code; the number itself corresponded to specific telephone switching offices and trunk groups. All calls went to one central destination; there was no means to place a toll-free call to another country.

Despite its limitations (and the relatively high cost of long distance in that era), the system was adequate for the needs of large volume users such as hotel chains, airlines and hire car firms which used it to build a truly national presence.

For small regional businesses who received few long-distance calls, the original InWATS was prohibitively expensive. As a fixed-rate bulk service requiring special trunks, it was suited only to large volume users.

Modern direct-dial systems[edit]

Modern toll-free service became possible when telephone companies replaced their electro-mechanical switching systems with computerized switching systems. This allowed toll-free calls to be routed based on instructions located in central databases.

In the United States, AT&T engineer Roy P. Weber from Bridgewater, New Jersey patented a 'Data Base Communication Call Processing Method' which was initially deployed by AT&T in 1982. The called number was an index into a database, allowing a 'Toll-Free Call' or '800 Call' to be directed anywhere.[3]

In the United Kingdom, BT introduced "Linkline" on 12 November 1985. No more need to manually ring the operator, two new prefixes 0800 (an automated toll-free service which became "Freefone") and 0345 (a shared-cost service marketed as "Lo-Call" because initially its rates resembled those of local calls) could be reached by direct dial.[4] Cable and Wireless used 0500 and 0645, in much the same way, just a few years later.

Vanity numbering[edit]

A toll-free vanity number, custom toll-free number, or mnemonic is a 1-800 telephone number that is easy to remember because it spells something and means something like 1-800-FED-INFO. A vanity number, being a phoneword, is easier to remember than most numerical phone number. Businesses use easily remembered 1-800 vanity numbers as both a branding and a direct response tool in their advertising (radio, television, print, outdoor, etc.).

In North America, U.S. FCC regulations state that allocation of numbers is first come, first served; this gives vanity number operators who register as RespOrgs a strong advantage in obtaining the most valuable phonewords, as they have first access to newly disconnected numbers. In Australia, premium numbers, such as the 13-series, or the vanity phone words, are distributed by auction separately from the administrative procedure to assign random, generic numbers from the available pool.

Shared use[edit]

In toll-free telephony, a shared-use number is a vanity number (usually a valuable generic phoneword) which is rented to multiple local companies in the same line of business in different cities. These appear in Australia (1300 and 1800) and North America (+1-800- and its overlays); in the U.S., the RespOrg infrastructure is used to direct calls for the same number to different vendors based on the area code of the calling number.

As one example, a taxi company could rent shared use of +1-800-TAXICAB in one city. The number belongs to a company in Van Nuys, California,[5] but is redirected to local cab companies on a city-by-city basis[6] and promoted by being printed on everything from individual taxi cab hub caps[7] to campaigns against drunk driving.[8] Another example is Mark Russell's +1-800-GREATRATE, a shared-use number rented to lenders in various cities nationwide for a monthly fee.[9]

One former Mercedes dealer obtained +1-800-MERCEDES, charging other dealers to receive calls to that number from their local areas. The auto maker unsuccessfully sued MBZ Communications of Owatonna, Minnesota, operated by former Mercedes dealer Donald Bloom, alleging deception and trademark infringement.[9][10] Mercedes was ultimately forced to obtain a different number, +1-800-FOR-MERCEDES, for its national call centre.[11]

A company renting +1-800-RED-CROSS at a premium price to individual local Red Cross chapters as 'shared use' was less fortunate; the Federal Communications Commission reassigned that number to the Red Cross as an emergency response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.[12]

Shared use can be used as a means to circumvent restrictions on warehousing, hoarding and brokering toll-free numbers as technically the number is not being sold, only rented one city or region at a time. The practice is nonetheless potentially problematic as it leaves local businesses advertising numbers which they do not own and for which they therefore have no number portability. The cost per minute and per month is typically far higher for a shared-use number than for a standard toll-free vanity number which a local business controls outright and there is little protection if the shared use company fails to meet its obligations or ceases operation.

There are also technical limitations; voice over IP users in particular are difficult to geolocate as their calls may be gated to the public switched telephone network at a point hundreds or thousands of miles away from their actual location. A roaming mobile or Internet telephone user is effectively (like the user of a foreign exchange line) attached to a distant rate centre far from their physical address.

If a programme like Crime Stoppers is inherently regional or local, but the same national +1-800-222-TIPS number is shared between multiple Canadian and US call centres, the centre accepting the call must determine whether the call belongs to some other region.

Around the world[edit]

Countries around the world use different area codes to denote toll-free services in their own networks. Some examples are:

North America[edit]

Toll-free numbers in the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) are commonly called "800 numbers" after the original area code which was used to dial them. They include the area code 800 (since 1966), 888 (since 1996), 877 (since 1998), 866 (since 2000), 855 (since 2010), and 844 (December 7, 2013).[17] Area codes reserved for future expansion include 833, 822, 880 through 887, and 889.[18]

These are free from landlines but incur cellular airtime charges from mobile telephones. There are a few special mobile-only numbers (like *CAA to call the Canadian Automobile Association) which are free from mobile.

The original Wide Area Telephone Service is obsolete. North American toll-free numbers are controlled by an intelligent network database (SMS/800) in which any toll-free number may be directed to a local or long-distance geographic telephone number, a T-carrier or primary rate interface line under the control of any of various RespOrgs.[19] Direct inward dialing and toll-free number portability are supported; various providers offer gateways which receive freephone calls on PRI lines and deliver them to voice over IP or pager users.

Toll free numbers usually capture the telephone number of the caller for billing purposes through automatic number identification, which is independent of caller ID data and functions even if caller ID is blocked.[20]

China[edit]

800 toll-free numbers[edit]

400 toll-free numbers[edit]

Australia[edit]

Toll-Free (usually referred to as Free Call or Free Phone)[edit]

Local Rate numbers[edit]

A system similar to 1800 numbering exists where 6 or 10 digit numbers prefixed with 13 (one-three), 1300 or 1301 (colloquially one-three-hundred) can be called at local call rates regardless of location.

Mobile phones[edit]

Netherlands[edit]

The introduction of 0800/0900 numbers in the Netherlands in 1986 has led significant growth of call centres and an increase in outsourcing.[25]

United Kingdom[edit]

In the United Kingdom, toll-free telephone numbers are generally known as "freephone" numbers (British Telecom numbers are officially Freefone) and begin with the prefixes 0800, 0808 or the Cable & Wireless Freecall prefix 0500. The most commonly used prefix is 0800. Additionally, numbers in the range 0808 80x xxxx are reserved for not-for-profit helplines.

0800 and 0808 are free for landline users, but may cost up to 41p per minute from mobile telephones. Mobile operators must announce at the start of a call that charges apply, but are not required to announce the price of the call.[26]

Since Orange UK introduced charges for dialling freephone numbers in December 2005, all British mobile networks (excluding giffgaff[27] who are an MVNO) now charge for calls to freephone numbers, with certain limited exemptions (notably 0808 80x xxxx numbers, DWP new claims, Childline and some other services),[28][29][30][31][32][33][34] but this varies by network.

Freephone 0800 and 0808 numbers will become free calls from all UK mobile phones on 26 June 2015.[35] Freephone 0500 numbers will transfer to either 0805 0 or 0808 5 (to be decided) in a three year transition period beginning mid-2014.[36]

The UK mobile operators offer an alternative product to organisations who wish to provide toll-free services - 5-digit voice short codes which are sold through mobile aggregators.

Freephone numbers can be obtained for free, with incoming calls charged from 1 penny per minute.[citation needed] Toll-free calls are also still available via the operator, although largely superseded by the 0800 system - a commonly seen phrase in advertisements in the 1980s was "Dial 100 and ask for freephone <business name>".

Universal International Freephone numbers[edit]

A Universal International Freephone Number (UIFN) is a worldwide toll-free "800 number" issued by the ITU. Like the 800 area code issued for the NANP in the U.S. and Canada and 0800 numbers in many other countries, the call is free for the caller, and the receiver pays the charges. UIFN uses ITU country code 800, so that no matter where the caller is, only the international access code (IAC), the UIFN country code (800) and the 8-digit UIFN need to be dialed. Currently, a limited number of carriers in about 65 countries participate in the UIFN program;[37] free access to the numbers (as international calls) from mobile and coin telephones is not universal. Registration of a +800 number incurs a 200 swiss franc ITU fee (as of 2013) in addition to any charges levied by the individual carrier. The number must be activated for inbound calls from at least two telephone country codes within 180 days.[38]

The +800 UIFN service is one of three ITU-administered non-geographic codes with a similar numbering scheme. The +808 Universal International Shared Cost Number (UISCN), billed at the price of a domestic call, shares the same eight-digit format; the +979 Universal International Premium Rate Number (UIPRN), billed at a high premium cost, carries one extra digit to indicate price range.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ BT Plc. "Events in Telecommunications History (1960)". BT Archives. BT Group. Retrieved 2009-05-11. 
  2. ^ Blackburn Police Station, Westlothian UK, "dial 100 and ask for Freephone Crimebusters" to report tips about crime
  3. ^ Weber, Roy P. "Data base communication call processing method". "US patent 4191860. Filed Jul 13, 1978. Issued Mar 4, 1980" 
  4. ^ BT Plc. "Events in Telecommunications History: 1985". BT Archives. BT Group. Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  5. ^ Robinson-Jacobs, Karen (Nov 28, 2000). "Nationwide Taxi Service Calls Valley Home". Los Angeles Times. p. B1. 
  6. ^ "Logix to Route Callers for 1-800-Taxicab". Direct Marketing News. 2000-11-22. Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  7. ^ ANDREW ZIPERN (2001-05-14). "MediaTalk; In Los Angeles, the Hubcap as Billboard". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  8. ^ "Businesses, Sheriff's Office pitch in tonight to get drunks home". Nashville Business Journal. 2009-12-31. Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  9. ^ a b "1 800 Mercedes | 1-800-catchy-number- makes-a-lot-of-money". Baltimore Sun. 2004-03-09. Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  10. ^ "Mercedes says Owatonna firm is dealing on its name". Star-Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul). February 22, 2000. 
  11. ^ The United States Patents Quarterly, Page 1361, Associated Industry Publications, 2003
  12. ^ Kevin Poulsen (Sep 7, 2005). "Red Cross Gets Squatter's Number". Wired.com. Retrieved 2013-07-01. 
  13. ^ "Toll-free lines - Green Line - 800". O2 Czech Republic. Retrieved 2011-07-21. 
  14. ^ "The Numbering Plan for Telecommunications Services in Hong Kong (SAR), China" (PDF). OFCA, Hong Kong. 2014. 
  15. ^ "Numbering plan for Ireland" (PDF). ComReg Ireland. 
  16. ^ "National Toll Free 800 Service". QTel Qatar. 
  17. ^ http://nanpa.com/pdf/PL_455.pdf
  18. ^ "Number Resources - NPA (Area) Codes". NANPA. Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  19. ^ "Toll Free Calls and Telecommunications Tariffs". Phone Services. 11 September 2013. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  20. ^ Fallon, Sean (2009-02-17). "TrapCall Displays Blocked Numbers on Your Caller ID". Gizmodo. Retrieved 2012-07-27. 
  21. ^ "Special numbers: Charges for calls to 13, 1300 & 1800 numbers". Australian Communications and Media Authority. 2013-10-11. Retrieved 2013-12-30. 
  22. ^ "smartnumbers". The Australian Communications and Media Authority. Retrieved 2012-04-25. 
  23. ^ "Annual numbering charges". ACMA. 
  24. ^ "Auctioned". ACMA. 
  25. ^ Some Sectoral and Locational Factors in the Development of Call Centres in the USA and the Netherlands, Peter Bain, University of Strathclyde, 2001
  26. ^ Murray-West, Rosie (2013-04-13). "'Freephone' numbers to be free from all phones". Telegraph (UK). Archived from the original on 2013-04-15. 
  27. ^ giffgaff. "giffgaff prices: UK tariffs". giffgaff. 
  28. ^ Vodafone (2010-10-28). "Free-to-caller charity numbers" (PDF). Vodafone Limited. Archived from the original on 2013-02-22. 
  29. ^ O2. "Free numbers". Telefónica UK Limited. 
  30. ^ Virgin. "Freephone numbers and Charity Helplines". Virgin Mobile Telecoms Ltd. 
  31. ^ T-Mobile (2012-01-30). "Free to Call Helpline Services" (PDF). Everything Everywhere Limited. Archived from the original on 2012-05-03. 
  32. ^ Orange. "Free Charity Numbers". Orange (UK). 
  33. ^ DWP (2010-01-15). "Free mobile calls for benefit claimants starting from 18 January 2010". Department for Work and Pensions. 
  34. ^ Orange (2011-02-01). "Free numbers of Department of Work and Pensions". Orange (UK). Archived from the original on 2011-02-12. 
  35. ^ Ofcom (2013-12-12). "Simplifying non-geographic numbers" (PDF). Final statement. Office of Communications. Archived from the original on 2013-12-12. 
  36. ^ Ofcom (2013-12-12). "Re-consultation on specific elements of Ofcom's proposal for the withdrawal of 0500 Freephone telephone numbers" (PDF). Consultations. Office of Communications. Archived from the original on 2013-12-12. 
  37. ^ "UIFN". International Telecommunication Union. Retrieved 2013-01-11. 
  38. ^ "UIFN". International Telecommunications Union. Retrieved 2013-11-04.