The use of toll free numbers is so ingrained that it’s hard to forget that not only does it have a history, it’s actually a short history at that.


In the 1950s the first toll free number, known as the Zenith number, was introduced. In essence, the Zenith number allowed a customer to call an operator within a specific community, who then connected the caller to the desired number. Although some Zenith numbers still exist, they have mostly fallen into disuse, due in part to the decreasing cost of toll free number assignments and as such, almost no new Zenith numbers have been issued for some time.


The Birth of 800 Numbers


The 1-800 phone number as we know it was developed in the late 1960s by AT&T. Prior to their introduction, businesses relied on a wide area telephone service (WATS) for customers to contact them free of charge.


The lines were divided into inbound and outbound lines, depending on who was doing the calling. WATS lines were operated by private branch exchanges. These were quickly replaced when AT&T launched the inWATS collect call system on May 2, 1967.


An Alternative to Collect Calling


Instituted in part as an alternative to collect calling (a service that required manual connections and thus necessary manpower), the very first toll free number was used by a company (now out of business) thathosted phone numbers for other businesses, including multiple hotel chains, such as Hyatt, Marriott, and Sheraton, and Budget Rent-A-Car.


For the next twenty or so years, AT&T lead the charge, holding what amounted to a monopoly on the toll-free industry. In 1984, however, AT&T ended its reign leading to toll free rates dropping, thus making them more affordable.


The Power of Vanity Numbers


One of the more recognizable aspects of a toll free line is a custom number that reflects the provider or item being sold by the company. Known as vanity numbers, these toll free numbers allow companies to select an easy-to-remember phone number that corresponds to various letters on a phone pad. Let’s say a company sells dog food exclusively. If it’s not already taken, they can request their number be 1-800-364-3663, which spells out 1-800-DOG-FOOD.


In 1993, an FCC regulation required toll free phone numbers to be ported from carrier to carrier, allowing companies who wanted to switch phone companies to keep their established numbers.  This portability has encouraged businesses to invest in vanity numbers and use their toll free numbers as part of their branding and marketing strategy.


The Growth of Toll Free Numbers


The popularity of toll free numbers has boomed over the past couple of decades, resulting in the addition of five more toll-free prefix numbers: 1-888, 1-877, 1-866, 1-855 and 1-844. The first, 1-888, was introduced in 1996, with 1-877 and 1-866 being introduced two years later. It wasn’t until 2010 that 1-855 was introduced into regular use. 1-844 was just launched in December 2013.


Despite being used predominantly by business and corporations, toll free numbers can be purchased by individuals for personal use. Examples of this include musicians looking to establish a single number for booking shows or other appearances.

Anyone can request a toll free number, a process that is accomplished by contacting a “Responsible Organization,” or RespOrgs. These entities have a database that includes listings of what numbers are available. Numbers are given out on a first-come, first-serve basis. A reputable toll free service provider also may have an inventory of numbers available for personal and company use.


Although millions of companies use 1800 and 1888 phone numbers (and their variations), the increasing online presence of most nationwide businesses has resulted in their sharing space with email and live chat services as a means of directly connecting with the customer. Despite this, toll free numbers are thriving, with everyone from multi-billion corporations to entrepreneurs working out of a small one-bedroom apartment using them. They’re affordable and can help establish a sense of legitimacy that gives your business or brand a nationwide — and even global — presence.