End of Line for 800 Prefixes

WASHINGTON -- For everyone from Mom and Pop businesses seeking to boost sales outside their area to Moms and Pops hoping to encourage junior to phone home from college, toll-free 800 numbers have become the hottest digits in U.S. telephony.

Toll-free 800 numbers are everywhere, propelled by a Federal Communications Commission decision in 1993 to open them up to competition by letting users take their 800 numbers with them when they switch long-distance carriers. The cost of maintaining a toll-free line has dropped from more than $1.50 a minute when they were introduced in 1969 to less than 25 cents today.

And now the inevitable is happening: The well of 800 numbers is starting to run dry. The seven digits following the "800" can be arranged into about 7.8 million different, usable numbers, and an increasingly anxious industry is now only a few months away from using up the available toll-free lines.

"A majority of our customers have been requesting 800 numbers ... but demand has been so strong we have to tell them we can't get any new toll-free numbers," said Carol Lyons, corporate sales manager for Inland Desert Security and Communications Co., a California-based commercial answering service.

"Everybody and his brother wants an 800 number," said Len Sawicki, senior manager for federal regulatory affairs at MCI Communications Inc., the Washington-based long distance carrier. "I think we may run out of 800 numbers by the end of the year."

By next April, the local telephone companies hope to have in place new technology that will recognize a new 888 prefix as toll-free, said Wallman. When that new prefix is exhausted, the industry plans to add 877, 866 and so on.

Meanwhile, the FCC has ordered Bellcore, the Livingston, New Jersey-based research arm of the seven regional Bell telephone companies, to ration the remaining 800-prefix numbers -- 500,000 are still available -- among the 137 carriers authorized to obtain them.

Under the FCC plan, the smallest providers will have just 25 toll-free numbers a month to allocate between now and next April. Even giants AT&T and MCI will only have a few hundred 800 numbers a month to assign to customers.

The transition, however, is likely to create widespread confusion and deepen the concern about the growing shortage of all kinds of telephone numbers.

As with other area codes, 800-prefix numbers are being depleted by an explosion of fax machines, pagers and cellular phones. Although a record 14 telephone area codes are scheduled to change this year to accommodate the skyrocketing demand, only callers dialing in and out of the affected regions were having to adjust to the area code additions.

By contrast, the crunch facing the toll-free 800 area code threatens to have more widespread impact because businesses and consumers throughout the country use such numbers almost daily.

Since they were introduced, 800 numbers have become a key part of the marketing strategies of U.S. businesses. About $157 billion in goods and services are expected to be sold this year over toll-free 800 numbers, according to Eugene Krodahl, president of National Telemarketing Inc. in New Orleans.

And what was once the province of large corporations has now become a common communications tool for small business and even individuals, as the industry has made a push to market nationwide toll-free paging services and "personal" 800 numbers that parents can sign up for so that their children away at college can keep in touch.