A Quick and Dirty Toll-Free Primer

October 6, 2015 Andrew Prokop

Source: No Jitter

Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.
-Aldous Huxley

Let's face it, we are surrounded by things that we don't truly understand. I am writing this article from my kitchen table about eight feet from my refrigerator. While I know it uses a compressor and a refrigerant to keep my food frozen or cold, I am pretty clueless as to how it actually does that. Okay, I do remember something about the laws of thermodynamics and heat flowing from hot to cold, but it gets a little fuzzy beyond that.

No matter what, I know that if I open the freezer door, the ice cubes and veggie burgers will be frozen solid. How they got that way only matters when my Amana stops working and those ice cubes melt and the veggie burgers turn to mush.

I expect that many of us in the world of unified communications struggle when it comes to understanding a great deal of the technology we work with on a daily basis. For instance, I know SIP very well, but my understanding of the H.323 protocol is limited. The opposite is true for others I work with. The good thing is that we all know people who are smart in ways we are not. This keeps our jobs in balance and the paychecks coming.

Often, it's the most ordinary aspects of communications that are the least understood. For example, do you understand how 800 numbers work? You know that they connect us toll-free to a business or organization, but are you aware of how they differ from ordinary telephone numbers?

A Little History Lesson
Prior to the mid-1960s, toll-free dialing required an operator intervention. A caller would dial 0 (zero) and tell the operator the toll-free number he or she wanted to call. These numbers were assigned to a geographic region which limited how they could be used by a large company. Toll-free numbers answered in New York could not suddenly terminate in Phoenix and vice versa.

This started to change with the introduction of Direct Dial 800 numbers in 1966. While the initial offering was a big improvement over operated assisted toll-free numbers, they lacked many of the features we take for granted these days. For instance, these early numbers did not support Automatic Number Identification (ANI) to inform call center agents who was calling. Also, like the previous operated-assisted solution, these early 800 numbers were still bound to geographic regions.

Toll-free numbers went through a significant transformation in the early 1980s when the dialed number became an index into a database that determined where the call was to be directed. This broke the dependency on location and allowed 800 numbers to be freely assigned across the country.

Judge Greene's 1982 breakup of the Bell System was a further catalyst for change. New carriers quickly popped up across the country, and they all wanted a piece of the toll-free pie. No longer were companies tied to AT&T and its vision of how the world should operate.

The 1980s also saw the introduction of the vanity number. Instead of a random series of numbers, 1-800-Got-Junk and other easy to remember numbers became commonplace. Companies now began using telephone numbers as marketing and branding tools.

With toll-free calling becoming the lifeblood of many organizations, their use skyrocketed. This eventually exhausted the supply of 10,000,000 800 numbers, causing 888 numbers to be introduced in 1996. This was soon followed by the creation of 877 and 866 numbers. Despite this huge expansion of the toll-free number pool, continued demand required the introduction of 855 numbers in 2010.


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About the Author

Andrew  Prokop

Director of Vertical Industries

Andrew Prokop has been heavily involved with SIP and VoIP technologies since the late 1990’s. He holds four United States patents in SIP and was on the team that developed Nortel’s carrier-grade SIP soft switch and SIP-based contact center. His software runs in products from Avaya and Genband. Andrew joined Arrow SI three years ago and through customer engagements, users groups, tradeshows, and webinars has been an evangelist for SIP as a transformational technology for enterprises and their customers. Andrew understands the needs of the enterprise and has the background and skills necessary to assist companies as they drive towards a world of dynamic and immersive communications.

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