Is Someone Hoarding Those ‘800’ Numbers?

A Flashback article from the NY times, 1995

The telephone industry isn’t just running low on local phone numbers. Supplies of toll-free “800” numbers are also dwindling, creating the kind of demand more often associated with hard-to-get tickets — say, for the World Series or a big rock concert.

An explosion in the number of toll-free services, led by electronic pagers, has caused most of the nearly eight million possible “800” numbers to be taken. So last year, the telephone industry agreed to make the prefix 888 an additional toll-free designator, beginning in April 1996. But the surge in demand for toll-free numbers has forced the starting date to be moved forward one month, to March 1.

In June, worried that the remaining “800” numbers might have to be rationed before new “888” numbers were available, the Federal Communications Commission ordered a freeze on the number of organizations — including telephone companies and corporate users of the numbers — allowed to draw “800” numbers directly from a central data base.

The next week, 113,000 of the toll-free numbers were claimed, about three times the normal weekly average.

Rumors began flying that AT&T and MCI were hoarding “800” numbers, fearing the confusion that is expected early next year until consumers get used to the “888” prefix and businesses update the software in their automated switchboards to recognize the new prefix.

Both companies deny the rumors, saying that they are required to assign “800” numbers to customers within 45 days or return them to the data base.

The F.C.C. has since capped the total of “800” numbers that can be claimed by all parties each week at 30,000, and the agency has begun an investigation of the causes of that June run on toll-free numbers.

“When all is said and done,” said Kathleen B. Levitz , deputy bureau chief of the F.C.C.’s common carrier bureau, “it just may be that there has been an explosion in demand for 800 numbers.” LAURENCE ZUCKERMAN

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