Toll-free phone numbers have been around for quite a long time now, and their value to businesses remains even until today. There are a few benefits to having a toll-free number, most notably the fact that anyone can call it without assuming any charges, but it’s also a simple way to give your business a national presence. On top of that, it works great to turn it into a vanity number to make it easier for customers to remember and identify your business, especially when it has the original (800) area code.
800 numbers have come a long way to become what they are today. All the way from collect calling, to expensive, regional-based numbers offered during the time when AT&T still monopolized the telecom industry, to the affordable, nationwide toll-free service with which we are familiar today. In this article, we’ll explore that extensive history, its gradual development over time, and how 800 numbers came to be what they are now.
Collect Calling for Toll-Free Calls
Previous to the 1950s, before modern toll-free numbers even existed, the only way you could make a call for no charge was to call collect. Do you remember making collect calls? Some younger millennials may not have the slightest idea what a collect call is.
Those of us who are a little older will probably remember placing a collect call by dialing 1-800-COLLECT which was actually a service provided by a specific, popular company during the 90s. 1-800-COLLECT is actually still in business, but now they charge around 50 bucks for a single collect call that lasts only a couple of minutes.
Before that was available, you would simply have to dial “0” for the operator and verbally request a collect call. To complete the call after letting the operator know you need one, you would simply give them the number you wanted to reach and your name. Then, they would dial the number for you and ask the person who answered if they would accept the charges, after which you would be connected.
That person would naturally be charged for the call. It was never very much fun to make one of these calls because it was kind of rude (unless you were in some kind of emergency, of course) and you would always feel like kind of a jerk when you collect-called someone. Amazingly, you can still call people collect, even to a cell phone.
The Zenith Number
We now have a widespread and pretty efficient system for people who are having an emergency that we can access by simply dialing 9-1-1, but that system didn’t always exist. Before we had 911, people just had to dial the operator, who would gather information from the caller and connect them to the appropriate local department who could respond to their emergency and help.
The first development in toll-free phone service for the U.S. came in the 1950s and was called “Zenith”. In the beginning, the caller would still dial the operator, but then they would literally say, “zenith”, which signaled to the operator to not apply charges for the call.
This was created for anyone to use and was a valuable public service for those who found themselves in a situation where they could not pay for the call; however, it became problematic in 1954 when the California Highway Patrol (CHP) established their own zenith number, Zenith 1-2000 (931-2000), which was specifically for reporting accidents and emergencies along California highways.
The reason that it became a problem was because people began to use this number for non-emergencies, such as asking for information about their traffic tickets, road conditions, and weather reports. The agents who were tending the zenith line were happy to help with what they needed, but the public were urged to only use this line for emergencies on highways.
InWATS and the First Nationwide Toll-Free Service
InWATS (Inward Wide Area Telephone Service) was set up by AT&T in 1967 to give customers the option of paying a flat rate as an AT&T subscriber to allow their callers to avoid charges. This was the first significant step towards a system that people could use around the country to reach a business or organization with a free call, but there were definitely problems with its function in this early stage.
It was extremely expensive for subscribers because these toll-free numbers were still tied to geographic areas, forcing the subscriber to pay for multiple toll-free numbers to cover the entire U.S. This obviously made it very exclusive, as only very large companies were able to afford the service.
During this time, calls were connected over an analog network because the digital technology that would be added in the next decade to facilitate the development of modern telecom infrastructure. Bell and AT&T were the only option back then, too, because they were the only carriers. They held a monopoly over the entire telecom industry and basically built the whole system, so if you were making a telephone call to anywhere, you were using AT&T.
800 Numbers Gain Traction
Relatively speaking, those dark ages of toll-free calling and the larger telephone network did not last very long. 800 numbers finally became affordable and more efficient in the mid 1970s with the invention of digitally-controlled switching, which made it possible to provide toll-free service for the entire nation through a single 800 number.
As it very often does, this new age of ubiquitous toll-free service started with a single person working quietly within the industry, and as you could probably guess, he worked at AT&T. Roy Weber, an AT&T engineer in the 1970s, invented this digital switching technology. Unfortunately—one might even say, tragically—he did not hold the patent for his invention that changed telecom infrastructure forever because AT&T controlled all the patents for any invention created by their employees.
It has been said that Weber’s supervisor actually scoffed at him for the very idea of using digital switching to automatically connect calls, so the technology was shelved for years until AT&T eventually centralized its databases and resurrected Weber’s idea in the 1980s to make toll-free service more affordable and efficient. In 1993, 800 numbers became available from any phone carrier in the telecom industry as they took away the monopoly held by AT&T for decades up until that time.
It was a huge step because, being the only provider for phone service, the public was at their mercy, and AT&T could pretty much charge anything they want and dictate to subscribers whom they would be able to call. When other carriers were allowed to enter the industry and subsequently generate competition between carriers, prices went down and the service continually improved from there.
Massive Popularity Ensues for 800 Numbers
Phone subscribers could now get affordable, nationwide service for toll-free numbers, and tons of businesses were able to sign up for the service with the carrier of their choosing. It was obviously in very high demand because as the previously exclusive luxury of giving customers a toll-free number to call was now available for pretty much any business, every business wanted it.
So many businesses wanted toll-free numbers that the original 800 area code numbers started to run out. This is why we now have not only 800 numbers, but also 888, 877, 866, 855, 844, and recently, 833 toll-free area codes. They were gradually added over time to meet the demand as each area code began to run out, and as you can see from the multiple area codes that were created, the demand only increased as time went on.
The infrastructure and network continued to improve over the following decades and made it increasingly cheaper and more versatile, giving subscribers a service that could better support the handling of calls for their customers, including reliable toll-free service around the country.
800 Area Code Numbers Are Now Premium
800 area code phone numbers are now so well-known and widespread that many people even use the terms, “toll-free” and “800” interchangeably, when 800 is of course only one of the various toll-free area codes. You can still get 800 numbers, but they are usually in very short supply, prompting carriers and phone number vendors to charge you a lot more to get one than they used to be.
There are cases in which 800 numbers become available again, such as a business that cancels service with a carrier and forfeits their 800 number, but they are obviously being snatched up by new subscribers faster than the previous owner can release those numbers.
The other toll-free area code numbers are far cheaper because there are more of them available, especially the new 833 area code. Today, we want the classic 800 number because, for one thing, it’s the easiest for a customer to remember and dial, and it lends a certain professional status to the company that has it.
The 800 area code, in particular, is well-known as the classic toll-free area code, instilling confidence in the caller, which is naturally a valuable quality for a business to draw in new customers. There’s also just something about it that conveys a certain level of dependability and trustworthiness to customers when they see that number.
The same actually goes for the other toll-free area codes, too, but everybody knows the 800 number right away when they see it. Once a business has a premium 800 number, they tend to hang on to them, which is another reason why they remain in short supply, in addition to the fact that new businesses open every day now.
You can see from this progression of events in the past few decades that the development of toll-free service took a pretty long time to get to the point where it is now and offer businesses the ability to easily and affordably obtain the service so that they can offer free calling to their customers.
Having a toll-free number for your business is extremely useful not only for the obvious reason of allowing customers to call you for free, but it also simply makes you look good. When someone sees that you have a toll-free number for your company, especially the sought-after 800 number, for some reason, it makes your company appear to be more solid and more well-established.
It’s an almost subconscious effect but definitely notable. One reason for this effect may be that people assume that if you went to the trouble to secure toll-free service for them, then you must have it together (even if that weren’t true). It might even be worth the cost to spring for the premium 800 area code because first of all, once you have it, it’s yours pretty much forever.
Second of all, that’s a pretty exclusive area code that is highly recognizable and only held usually by fairly established businesses. It’s definitely a good idea to shop around, though, with different carriers and phone number vendors, as good prices for obtaining 800 numbers do come around from time to time. There are even vendors that only sell toll-free phone numbers and can sometimes give you a very good price for them.
Even this site you’re on right now, Talkroute, has toll-free numbers available at an affordable price. If you are happy with only using a local area code phone number for the location where your business operates, then that’s great if it works for you, but to give your business a national presence and a national feel, an 800 number is a great asset to have.
Stephanie is the Marketing Director at Talkroute and has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur as a leading authority on business and telecommunications.
Stephanie is also the chief editor and contributing author for the Talkroute blog helping more than 100k entrepreneurs to start, run, and grow their businesses.