Toll-free telephone numbers in the United States
These numbers are free to the caller if dialled from a land-line telephone but will incur mobile airtime charges for cellular users.
Unlike the United Kingdom, most of the United States and all of Canada uses a rate structure in which local calls are flat-rated and incur no per-call cost to residential subscribers. As regulators in North America had long allowed long-distance calling to be priced artificially high over the many decades of Bell System monopoly in return for artificially low rates for local service, subscribers tended to make toll calls rarely and, if they could not be entirely avoided, keep them deliberately brief.
A few businesses, eager to sell their products to buyers outside the local calling area, were willing to accept collect calls where they paid the cost of receiving telephone enquiries. Initially, all of these calls had to go through the telephone company's operator, who requested acceptance of the charges for each call manually. An early refinement of this process, in the late 1950s, was for businesses to publish a Zenith number (because, at that time, the letter "Z" was not present on the telephone dial) in various out-of-town directories for towns from which they would accept all charges-reversed calls. This saved a small amount of time, but an operator still had to manually find the underlying number on a printed list and place the call with charges billed to the called party.
The first automated toll-free numbers were area code 1–800, created as inbound Wide Area Telephone Service (InWATS) in 1966 (US intrastate) and 1967 (interstate). These terminated on special fixed-rate trunks which would accept calls from a specified calling area with either no limit or a specific maximum number of hours per month. There was no itemised billing of calls and the expensive fixed-rate line was only within financial reach of large corporations and government agencies.
In the early 1980s, Bell Labs patented what became AT&T's "Advanced 800 Service" – a computer-controlled system where any toll-free number could point anywhere (such as to a small business local number instead of a special InWATS line) and an itemised bill generated for only the calls the business actually received. By breaking the link between the number's exchange prefix and geographic location, this system opened opportunities for vanity number advertising – an advantage in media like commercial radio where numbers need to be memorable as they're announced only briefly.
The toll-free long distance market was opened to competition after 1986 and a RespOrg system instituted in 1993 to provide toll-free number portability between rival carriers using the SMS/800 database. Open competition also brought an end to the pattern of long distance subsidising local service, bringing per-minute charges down to levels where any business could afford to take orders using a 1–800 number.
The original +1-800 code operated for over thirty years before its 7.8 million possible numbers were depleted, but new toll-free area codes are being depleted at an increasing rate both by more widespread use of the numbers (voice-over-IP, pocket pagers, residential and small business use) and widespread abuse by RespOrgs and subscribers who stockpile the numbers for use in misdial marketing (PrimeTel Communications alone ties up millions of numbers), response tracking for individual advertisements (each ad from each client gets a different freephone number) or sale, lease or shared use (brokering numbers for sale is illegal, but renting a number or part of a number circumvents these regulations as FCC enforcement is sporadic to minimal).
Some regular area codes may be deceptively similar to toll-free prefixes (e.g., 801, 818, 860, etc.). These similarities have also been exploited by fraudsters in international locations that can be direct-dialled with what appear at first glance to be domestic area codes, including 809, 829, and 849, which are official prefixes for the Dominican Republic and 876 which is the area code for Jamaica. Toll-free numbers are also sometimes confused with 900-numbers, for which the telephone company bills the callers at rates far in excess of long-distance service rates for services such as recorded information or live chat.
These toll-free numbers can normally be called from any phone in Canada or the US, though the owner (and sometimes the provider) can put restrictions on their use. Sometimes they accept calls only from either Canada or the US, or even only from certain states or provinces. Some are not accessible from payphones. Calls from payphones assess the toll-free owner an additional fee in the USA as mandated by the FCC. Although toll-free numbers are not accessible internationally, many phone services actually call through the USA, and in this case the toll-free numbers become available. Examples of these services are the MCI Worldphone international calling card and any US-based Internet telephone gateway. However, many calling card services charge their own fee when their toll-free numbers are used to make calls, or when their toll-free numbers are used from pay phones.
From many countries (such as the UK), US toll-free numbers can be dialled, but the caller first gets a recorded announcement that the call is not free; in fact, on many carriers, the cost of calling a 'toll-free' number can be higher than to a normal number.
US toll-free numbers could at one time be accessed from certain other countries (such as México) on a paid basis by replacing the 800 by 880, 888 by 881, and 877 by 882. Thus, to reach 1-800-xxx-yyyy from a country outside its toll-free coverage area, 1-880-xxx-yyyy could be dialled. This is no longer true; areas codes 880, 881 and 882 have since been reclaimed for future use.
In addition, US toll-free numbers may be accessed free of charge regardless of the caller's location by some IP telephone services.
How toll-free calls are handled by operators
In the United States, both interexchange carriers (IXCs) such as Sprint/Nextel, AT&T Inc., and Verizon, and Local Exchange Carriers (LECs) such as Verizon and AT&T offer toll-free services. The way that a toll-free number is handled depends on whether it is a domestic or interexchange call. Most countries are divided into regions called exchanges, and within each exchange a local telephone company handles all phone services. Intraexchange calls, which do not leave the individual region, would be managed by the individual local telephone company. Calls that cross US LATA boundaries – or originate in one country and terminate in another – are referred to as interexchange calls.
The format of the toll-free number is called a non-geographic number, in contrast to telephone numbers associated with households which are geographic. (Since the advent of cell phones and voice over IP, households can have any area code in the USA—it is still geographic in the sense that calls from that area code are considered local, but the recipient can be physically anywhere). In the latter case, it is possible to determine an approximate location of the caller from the area code (e.g. New York or London). Toll-free numbers in contrast could be physically located anywhere in the world.
When a toll-free number is dialled, the telco must determine where the actual physical destination is. This is achieved using the intelligent network capabilities embedded into the network.
In the simplest case, the toll-free number is translated into a regular geographic number. This number is then routed by the telephone exchange in the normal way. More complicated cases may apply special routing rules in addition such as Time of Day routing.
Toll-free numbers are normally specific to each country. Canadian numbers are an exception as they are drawn from the same SMS/800 pool as other North American Numbering Plan countries; the +800 Universal International Freephone Number is an exception as these work from multiple country codes.
The arbitrary distinctions between Local Exchange Carrier/Interexchange carrier, intrastate/interstate and the LATA structure are artificial US regulatory constructs which do not have direct parallels in Canada or any other nation.
Technical description of toll-free number routing in the U.S.
The IXCs generally handle traffic crossing boundaries known as LATAs (Local Access and Transport Areas). A LATA is a geographical area within the U.S. that delineates boundaries of the LEC. LECs can provide local transport within LATAs. When a customer decides to use toll-free service, they assign a Responsible Organization (RespOrg) to own and maintain that number. The RESPORG can be either the IXC that is going to deliver the majority of the toll-free services or an independent RESPORG.
Taking a closer look, when a toll-free number is dialled, each digit is analysed and processed by the LEC. The toll-free call is identified as such by the service switching point (SSP). The SSP is responsible for sending call information to the service control point (SCP), routing the request through at least one signal transfer point (STP) in the Signalling System 7 (SS7) network. SS7 is a digital out-of-band method of transmitting signalling (call control) information in the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). The SS7 network is a packet-switched network carrying signalling data (setup and tear down of the call and services) separate from the circuit-switched bearer network (the payload of the telephone call) in the AIN services network. The SSP asks the SCP where to send the call.
The LEC will determine to which IXC that number is assigned, based on the customer's choice. Toll-free numbers can be shared among IXCs. The reason a customer might do this is for disaster recovery or for negotiating a better price among the carriers. For example, a customer may assign 50% of their traffic to Sprint and 50% to AT&T. It's all up to the customer.
Once the LEC determines to which IXC to send the call, it is sent to the IXCs point of presence (POP). The IXCs SCP must now determine where to send the call. When it comes to routing, the SCP is really the brains of the long distance network. Once the final determination of where the call is supposed to go is completed, the call is then routed to the subscriber's trunk lines. In a call center or contact center environment, the call is then typically answered by a telephone system known as an automatic call distributor (ACD) or private branch exchange (PBX).
The subsequent routing of the call may be done in many ways, ranging from simple to complex depending on the needs of the owner of the toll-free number. Some of the available options are:
- Time-of-Day (TOD) Routing. One of the simplest ways to influence the destination of the call is by using time-of-day routing. An example of using TOD routing would be a company with a call center on the east coast and a call center on the west coast. TOD routing would enable Follow the Sun routing. The east coast center opens first and calls are sent to that destination earlier in the day. As the time changes across the country, expanded coverage would be offered by the call center in the west.
- Day of Week (DOW) or Day of Year (DOY) Routing. Depending on the day of the week and business practices, not all call centers operate 24x7. Some centers may be closed for weekends or holidays. DOW routing allows alternate routing for calls that arrive on specific days. DOY routing allows for alternate routing on fixed holidays (example December 25).
- Area Code or Exchange Routing. Toll-free traffic may also be routed depending upon the location of the caller. For instance, if a company has call centers in the north and in the south, they may express a preference to have their southern callers speak with people in the southern call centers. Companies may also wish to take advantage of the difference in interstate rates versus intrastate rates. For example, the cost of a telephone call across multiple states may be less expensive than a call within a state, and as a result, the ability to route a call originating in Michigan to a call center outside of Michigan can save a company substantial amounts of money.
- Least-Cost Routing is a variant of area code / exchange routing in which an independent RespOrg sends calls via different carriers based on which is least expensive for any given origination point. The RespOrg is not the carrier. A Canadian carrier could be used for Canadian calls and a US carrier for American calls; a user with many inbound local voice over IP numbers in multiple cities could convert toll-free calls on one main toll-free number to local calls in each city where it has a point of presence.
- Percentage Allocation Routing. If a company has multiple call centers, the company can choose to route calls across a number of call centers on a percentage basis. For example, an airline with ten call centers may choose to allocate 10% of all incoming traffic to each center.
- All-Trunks-Busy Routing. If at a given time, a company's trunk facilities can no longer handle the incoming traffic, an alternate destination may be chosen. This assists companies handling unexpected call volumes or during crisis times.
- Ring No Answer Routing. Some carriers have the ability to pull a call back into the network if the call is not answered. This provides for contingency routing for calls that ring and are not answered at the final destination.
- Emergency or Disaster Routing. Companies usually have some type of disaster plan to deal with both natural (e.g. floods, fires and earthquakes) and man-made (e.g. bomb threats) emergencies. IXCs can provide alternate destinations should any of these situations occur.
- Take Back and Transfer / Transfer Connect / Agent Redirect. If a company uses an ACD to facilitate the transfer, the ACD will remain in the call as long as the parties are on the phone. The drawback is that this uses up trunk capacity on the ACD (or VRU). This is called by a number of names including hair-pinning or tromboning. IXCs have the capability to allow a company to answer a call, provide a level of service, and then transfer the call to another location. These IXC features provide a level of transferring that is different from what is available via the ACD. There is usually a feature charge associated with this offering.
All of the above routing features are sometimes referred to as static routing features. These routes are put in place and are not usually changed. If changes are required, a customer usually has several options to make changes. A customer can call the IXC or an independent RESPORG directly via a special toll-free number to make changes, or a customer may be able to make changes through direct access to the network via a dedicated terminal provided by the IXC.
Assignment of NANP toll-free telephone numbers
Toll-free telephone numbers in the NANP are regulated by the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 52 Section 101. RespOrgs assign the numbers in the "SMS/800" database. SMS/800, Inc. administers this database as the Number Administration and Service Center, as a subcontractor for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The SMS/800 database and RespOrg structure are used in the US and Canada. A few specific exchanges remain reserved or are assigned to specific North American Numbering Plan countries which do not draw numbers from the SMS/800 pool:
- 1-800-271 to 1-800-907 are reserved for the following areas:
- -389 is the Bahamas
- -534 is Barbados
- -623 is Bermuda
- -415, 1-800-751 and 1-800-907 are the Dominican Republic
- -271 is Trinidad
- -855 is reserved for services for deaf or hearing-impaired users;these TTY-related numbers, operated by individual telephone companies, are assigned directly by the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA)
- A few other specific prefixes such as 1-800-484, 1-800-703, 1-800-744 and 1-800-904 are reserved by the FCC for future use
- 1-NPA-X11 is not allowed in any area code due to a rule that prohibits three-digit N11 codes from being area codes
- 1-NPA-555 is reserved in every toll-free area code (except 1–800) for future information or directory assistance applications
- "What Is a Toll-Free Number and How Does it Work?". Federal Communications Commission. Retrieved September 12, 2013.
- "800-855 Line Numbers". North American Numbering Plan Administration. Retrieved August 22, 2014.