How Do Toll Free Numbers Work?

Toll free numbers are the national communication gateway to the business. Now with ecommerce, toll free numbers are used by more businesses than ever. But to make the most of toll free service, businesses must first understand how it works. This article explains the evolution of toll free numbers and how businesses are managing them today. 


The beginning of toll free number service

Toll free numbers as we know them, go back to 1967 with AT&T’s introduction of the direct-dial automated option, known as the “Inward Wide Area Telephone Service” (InWATS). This was the first iteration of the standard 800 number followed by a 7-digit phone number. A high flat-rate package from AT&T ensured that it was only worthwhile for long-distance call receivers like hotel chains and other businesses fielding thousands of calls per month.

With the breakup of AT&T in 1982, the FCC assumed responsibility of managing telephone numbers and toll free numbers. They immediately reclassified phone numbers as a public resource.

Not long after the FCC deemed phone numbers a public resource, several telephone service providers began offering toll free number subscriptions. This still had major drawbacks for most businesses because they couldn’t take their number elsewhere, which locked them into that specific carrier. The marketing and branding cost alone would have made the change prohibitive for all but the largest businesses.

In 1991, the FCC stepped in again and mandated that toll free numbers be portable from provider to provider. This process known as number porting, enables companies to keep their business numbers even when they switch to another service provider. This opened the doors for more businesses to make use of toll free numbers. 

Related: Why VoIP Should be a Top Priority on Your 2019 Tech Plan


Who’s in charge of administering toll free numbers?

On a regulatory level, FCC establishes the laws that telecommunications providers have to abide by, and it designates the agencies that will administer numbers based on these laws.

Somos is the entity designated to manage administration of toll free numbers. Somos works with authorized telephone service providers known as Responsible Organizations (RespOrgs) such as Telzio, that can access the database and register toll free numbers for businesses on a first-come, first-serve basis. Anytime there are new toll free numbers released, Somos distributes the numbers to the RespOrgs, that are then able to offer them to business customers.


Toll free prefixes and number inventory 

While prefixes are the three digits at the beginning of all seven-digit phone numbers, we immediately think of the 800 prefixes when we think of toll free numbers. There are only around seven million combinations possible for the 7 digits of 800 toll free numbers, so it wasn’t long before both the U.S. and Canada were running short on numbers.

To remedy this problem, the FCC introduced additional toll free codes between 1998 and 2017 to include the codes 800, 888, 877, 866, 855, 844, and 833. The most recent toll free prefix that was made available was 833 in 2017. Presumably, the next inventory of toll free numbers will contain the prefix 822, but that release date has not yet been announced.


What are vanity numbers?

As businesses saw the value of toll free numbers as a branding and marketing tool, they sought out vanity numbers to maximize that advantage. Vanity toll free numbers operate as a mnemonic for customers by presenting an easily remembered numerical pattern or one that spell out a service or business name.

Because they are valuable branding, direct response, and marketing tools, vanity numbers are highly sought after. Like property, vanity numbers can carry substantial value and become an important business asset. Some vanity numbers have sold for over a million dollars. 


Routing toll free calls over landlines and VoIP

When customers place a call to your toll free number, it is routed to an interexchange carrier (IXC). The IXC provides connections between local exchanges across geographic areas known as local access and transport area (LATA). Since IXC’s utilize digital streams, they are wholly compatible with protocols that control the public telephone switching network (PTSN). This essentially means VoIP to landlines, computer to computer, computer to phone, and IP devices to other phone services use the same routing system.

Call routing can be done in many ways, based on the needs of the business with some of the more prominent ways including the following options:

  • Time-of-Day (TOD) Routing that matches east and west coast calls via follow-the-sun routing.
  • Ring No Answer Routing pulls a non-answered call back into the network for contingency routing.
  • Emergency or Disaster Routing enables IXCs to provide alternate routing destinations during disasters.

With today’s web-based configuration platforms, call routing can be customized instantly online to fit your particular business situation without the need for a technician. Whether you need to create hunt groups or route calls to field reps on their mobile phones, the ease of managing toll free numbers has come a long way.


Inbound calling versus outbound calling

While toll free numbers can be used for both inbound and outbound calls, most companies today reserve toll free usage for managing inbound traffic, and dial out from their local numbers. There are two main reasons for this. One is the perception of receiving a call from a toll free number. People see a toll free number on the caller ID and immediately assume it’s a telemarketer. The second reason is cost. Toll free numbers have slightly higher rates than local numbers, so businesses allocate outbound usage to the lower cost route. 

Related: Porting International Phone Numbers to Telzio 


Customer call centers and toll free texting  

While toll free numbers are widely used as customer service and call center lines for national and online businesses, they are equally useful for small and medium businesses. As an ecommerce business selling a service or product online, displaying a local number area code may narrow your brand image. Fortunately, the process of porting and configuring routing for toll free numbers is simple, and can be used as the entry point for inbound routing to multiple departments and locations.

Today, business owners with a toll free phone number can also use their number for texting. Toll free SMS lets a company facilitate texting with customers using the same toll free number used for voice calls. These days, users can text with customers via mobile app or through an online dashboard.

Start a free 30 day trial and instantly choose a toll free number for testing now.

Victor Brown is an IT expert with significant experience in the healthcare, manufacturing, and construction industries. He currently spends his time as a writer and strategist specializing in B2B technology for organizations from startups to enterprises.