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TOLL FREE SERVICE - WHAT IT IS, HOW IT WORKS
WHAT IS TOLL FREE? WHY IS IT POPULAR?
Toll free numbers - 800/888/877/866-NXX-XXXX (where N is a digit between 2 and 9 and X is a digit between 0 and 9) - allow callers to reach businesses or individuals without being charged for the call. The charge for using a toll free number is paid by the called party instead of the calling party (the called party is called the toll free subscriber).
In today's world, toll-free numbers have become commonplace. Toll-free service has proven successful to businesses, particularly in the areas of customers service and telemarketing, because the service provides potential customers and other persons with a "free" and convenient means of contacting those businesses.
Toll-free numbers are also increasingly popular for personal use. For example, parents can give their toll-free number to their child away at college, enabling that child to call home anytime without having to make a collect call and without the child having to pay for the call.
BRIEF HISTORY OF TOLL FREE
800 numbers were developed in the late 1960s by AT&T as a convenient way for businesses to pay the tolls for their customers who contacted them. As the service became more popular, toll free subscribers began finding new and innovative uses for the service. For example, mail order companies used toll free numbers to accept phone orders.
By the mid 1980s, when the Bell system was dismantled by the Justice Department, there were over 3 million 800 numbers in service by AT&T, and new long distance carriers were clamoring to provide 800 service. These carriers were assigned blocks of 800 numbers with common NXX codes, so, if you wanted to use service of a particular long distance carrier, you could only be assigned a number within the blocks of numbers assigned to that carrier. Thus, if a subscriber wanted to change long distance carriers, the subscriber would have to change toll free numbers. The numbers were not "portable."
To create a more competitive toll free market, the FCC established the policy that is in place today: toll free numbers are "portable." That is, a toll free subscriber may change his toll free service to another carrier, but he does not have to change his toll free number.
TOLL FREE CODES - 800, 888, 877, 866, ...
The introduction of toll free number portability helped propel the toll-free market. Within 18 months of the introduction of number portability, very few of the 7 million 800 numbers were left for new subscribers. The telecommunications industry chose 888 as the next toll free code, introducing about 8 million new numbers to the toll free pool. The industry then introduced 877 numbers as the 888 numbers neared depletion. In 2000, the 866 was released. Thus, today, there are four toll free codes, 800, 888, and 877. The industry plans to introduce 866, 855, and other codes for toll-free calling as current toll free codes near depletion.
It should be noted that, while 800, 888, 877, and 866 are all toll free codes, they are not interchangeable. 1-800-234-5678 is not the same as 1-888-234-5678. Calls to each toll free number are routed to a particular local phone number, although calls to different toll free numbers may be routed to the same local phone number.
Toll free directory assistance for all toll free codes is currently provided by AT&T and can be obtained by calling 1-800- 555-1212. Not all toll free numbers are listed - only those for subscribers that choose to list them. The Commission plans to address how to promote competition among multiple providers of directory assistance. In the meantime, it has required that, all 555 numbers in the 888 code (888-555-XXXX numbers) remain unavailable for allocation.
HOW ARE TOLL-FREE NUMBERS ALLOCATED?
All toll free numbers are stored in a single computerized database, the SMS/800. Each toll free number has a "status" in the database, such as "reserved," "assigned," "working," or "disconnected." Toll free numbers that are available for assignment to subscribers are designated as "spare."
Spare toll free numbers are assigned to subscribers on a first- come, first-served basis. Toll-free service providers are certified by the SMS/800 database administator as "Responsible Organizations" ("RespOrgs"). Only RespOrgs have access to the SMS/800 database. RespOrgs need not be telephone companies. Someone who wants a toll-free number may contact any RespOrg. You may find a RespOrg on the SMS/800's web site, at [SMS/800], which includes a list of all Toll Free Service Providers.
HOW CAN I GET A "VANITY" NUMBER?
A vanity number is a toll free telephone number that also spells a person's or company's name or spells a word or acronym chosen by the subscriber, for example, 1-800-FLOWERS or 1-888-NEW-CARS. To find out the status of a specific toll free number, contact any RespOrg.
WHAT'S THE FCC'S ROLE?
The Commission regulates and sets rules under which toll free numbers can be used or obtained, to ensure the efficient, fair and equitable allocation of toll-free numbers. For example, the FCC has ordered that toll free numbers must be portable. Also, the FCC's rules designate the criteria for determining the status of each toll free number, and they prohibit "warehousing" and "hoarding" of toll free numbers. As with any of the FCC's requirements, consumers may file complaints with the FCC whenever any of the requirements governing toll free service are violated.
The FCC itself, however, is not involved in the day-to-day allocation of toll free numbers. The FCC does not have access to the SMS/800 database, and it cannot provide any information about the status of a toll free number or about a request for a toll free number. Rather, the telphone industry establishes guidelines for toll free numbers, and the guidelines comply with the FCC's requirements.
"Warehousing" by RespOrgs is prohibited by the FCC's rules, and is therefore illegal under the Communications Act. Thus, a RespOrg may not legally reserve a toll free number without having an actual toll free subscriber for whom the number is being reserved. RespOrgs that warehouse number are subject to penalties.
"Hoarding" by subscribers is similarly prohibited and illegal. Thus a subscriber may not acquire more toll free numbers than the subscriber intends to use. The definition of hoarding also includes "number brokering," so a subscriber may not legally sell a toll free number for a fee.
If you have a problem with or complaint about a company providing toll free numbers or services, you should first try to resolve your complaint with that company or the company that bills you for the service.
If you are not successful in resolving the problem, you may file a consumer complaint with the FCC - either on line or on paper. The FCC complaint process has no fees associated with it. Consumer complaints are forwarded to the company involved in the dispute. In most instances, filing a consumer complaint with the FCC allows for resolution of the complaint, including refunds/credits from the company involved in the dispute, at no additional cost to the consumer. Monetary damages, however, are not awarded through the consumer complaint process. If you are seeking monetary compensation, other legal action is more appropriate.
More information on filing complaints is available at http://www.fcc.gov/complaints.html