What are 1800 Numbers?
The prefix "800" has been synonymous with toll-free business calling for nearly half a century. In recent years, population growth and increased demand has spawned new toll-free prefixes, including 888, 877, 866 and — most recently — 855. The original 1-800 number however, is the oldest and most coveted number, and the number most closely associated with toll-free calling.
The Early Days of 800 Numbers
AT&T introduced the first toll-free number, beginning with the prefix "800", in 1967. Before this innovation, customers dialing a business had to call collect, and couldn't be patched through until the business guaranteed payment for the incoming call. Not only was the collect-call system a financial burden, but it presented a labor hurdle as well, since human operators had to physically receive and route incoming calls. Originally, hotels and car-rental services — which received a significant volume of calls for reservations of rooms and vehicles — were the primary holders of 800 numbers.
A New Era of Expanded Reach
AT&T maintained a monopoly on all 800 numbers — often charging exorbitant prices for them — until 1984. In that year, a federal judge ordered that the "Ma Bell" monopoly be split into many regional companies. With new competition came a drastic drop in prices. Suddenly, even smaller companies could — and did — use toll-free 800 numbers for their business's telecommunication needs. A sole proprietor with a basement business could now have the same kind of phone number as an elite Fortune 500 company.
As the country and the world goes mobile, traditional landlines are quickly and dramatically disappearing, being replaced by cell phones and VoIP systems. Toll-free numbers were originally designed to nudge customers into dialing businesses by making it free in a time when calls were subject to arbitrary and costly long-distance charges. In the modern era, minutes-based cellular plans and flat-rate VoIP plans remove the immediate incentive of free calling. This has led to a discussion about the relevance of toll-free numbers in a time when every call costs exactly the same amount per minute.