ICB Toll Free (800/888) News by: Judith Oppenheimer, Publisher, ICB Toll Free (800/888) News
Wednesday March 12 1997 at 08:07:21 PM EST


The auction of toll-free vanity numbers, first proposed by Congress last year, is back, slipped obscurely into the 1998 Budget Proposal.

New York, NY US - The Wall Street Journal broke the story last week (Friday, March 7, 1997, . 800-Number Marketers Dial 888-NOT-FAIR. , by Sally Goll Beatty.)

The auction of toll-free vanity numbers, first proposed by Congress last year, is back, slipped obscurely into Table S-6, . Mandatory Budget Proposals by Program. of the 1998 Budget Proposal.

The numbers in question are specifically the 370,000+ 888 numbers, presumed to be valuable vanities, that were . set-aside. by 800 holders at the invitation of the FCC, pending its ruling on right of first refusal.

The auction is now rumored to be green-lighted. According to sources at two different carriers, they are fearful that the FCC will shut down the set-side release process established in June, 1996 (see http://www.thedigest.com/icb/icb-7.html) in advance of the auction, and are scurrying to get their biggest clients. 888. s out of the set-aside pool.

The catch? Carriers have to side-step the FCC requirement that those 888 numbers be released to the general pool for reassignment, and get them assigned directly to their largest customers. We. re told in most cases they. ve been successful.

Less unlikely than may appear at first glance, we. re also told that at least one carrier has a program that sweeps the 800 database every morning for newly released 888 vanities out of set-aside. It. s a wonder smaller marketers have any chance to compete for decent numbers at all.

So what does all this mean? Number ownership lies at the heart of the issue. Portability laws grant the right of number control to users. Carriers, in their capacity as . Responsible Organizations. (RespOrgs), have a contractual custodial status, and are supposed to act as agents for the users who are their customers.

With auction, the government is taking control, setting aside both user control mandated by law, and carrier management mandated by contract.

Beyond that, the very nature of auction shows that the government has no apparent understanding of the marketplace for, or characteristics of, toll-free numbers, nor a clue how markedly they differ from other forms of spectrum.

On the other hand, Congress is inadvertently setting a precedent for the value of toll-free numbers, useful toward the inevitable recognition of user ownership begun by portability.

More immediately, Congress is unwittingly setting up a lucrative after-auction feeding frenzy. A speculator who goes after auctioned 888's may try to resell them to the comparable 800 holders, as the more prominent holders fear, although speculators would be just as likely to capitalize on misdial profits.

And let. s not lose sight that carriers may be first in line with paddles flying.

Whomever they are, deep-pocket 888 buyers will try to buy the 800 versions from the current holders, which would be the only way to realize any marketing or consumer mindshare value out of the 888. s.

One final thought. 888 numbers, like 800, are portable throughout Canada and the Caribbean. There. s no word yet from either if they expect to benefit from their proportional share of the auction receipts.

Author/Correspondent's Profile: Judith Oppenheimer, Publisher, ICB Toll Free (800/888) News

Copyright 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 All rights reserved by Rainbow Pages, Inc. Updated 6/1/99
Access Business Online's Daily Business Newspaper