888 Numbers Debut: Where Are the Customers?

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Lighting up the "888" toll-free service area code went off largely without a hitch. Bellcore's Database Service Management, Inc., (DSMI), along with the SMS800 Number Administration Center (SNAC) and the collective efforts of local exchange carriers, toll-free carriers, customers, regulators, and responsible organizations (RespOrgs) met every deadline leading up to the Friday, March 1, launch date. 

Ian Lifchus, the Executive Director of 888 Project Management for Bellcore, called this effort the "most aggressive rollout" of new telephone numbers in industry history. The infrastructure that routes and bills for 800 numbers was modified to accommodate 888 numbers as well. SNAC began accepting orders from RespOrgs on February 10. By February 28, it had input 42,500 call-routing records into its database. 

At this point in time both the human and technical infrastructure are under a lot of pressure. Judith Oppenheimer, President of Interactive Callbrand(TM) (New York, NY) claims that the procedures for putting 888 numbers in service are still immature. There's a good deal of live troubleshooting going on. She has told her clients to put in orders for 888 numbers and to bird-dog their RespOrgs and DSMI, to ensure that the procedures are working. 

To prevent rapid exhaustion of 888 numbers, the FCC has put a conservation program into place. It is not as stringent as the one in place for 800 numbers, where roughly 500,000 of the 7.7 million available numbers remain in inventory. According to the plan, RespOrgs can "reserve" a maximum of 120,000 numbers per week. A reserved number is taken out of circulation, but not necessarily assigned to a customer. 

By contrast, 800 numbers are rationed at a 73,000 per week clip for the next three weeks before returning to a 29,000 allocation plan. Based on the FCC's guidelines, DSMI had expected to process close to 250,000 orders between February 10 and March 1. (In response to requests from users, the deadline for reserving "vanity" numbers was extended to March 15.) 

True to form, RespOrgs managed to "reserve" their full allocation of 888 numbers. However, the 42,500 numbers entered into the database represent roughly 17 percent of the potential 240,000 numbers reserved by RespOrgs. Figures released by SNAC on March 2 show continued apathy toward the new exchange. Between February 20 and March 1, 78,650 were "reserved" by RespOrgs (which is only two-thirds of the 120,000 available). Of those, only 5,602 were "assigned" to users and entered into the database with routing and billing instructions. 

In an effort to encourage more firms to sign up for 888 numbers, the FCC extended the deadline for reserving numbers to March 15. We have yet to see major advertising campaigns for 888 numbers. 

The Commission had an imaginative way of handling the "replication" issue (See TNV, Volume 3, No. 11). It asked the community of RespOrgs to poll their customers in order to obtain a list of "vanity" numbers. These numbers were to be tagged as "unavailable" pending resolution of the replication issue. 

To further complicate number administration issues, both Congress and the White House appear to be leaning toward auctioning vanity numbers as a method for closing the budget deficit. In a report by Reuters' reporter Nick Louth, an unidentified source claimed that Congress included a plan to auction an estimated 325,000 vanity numbers in a proposed budget bill drafted in late February. On March 8, the Clinton Administration calculated that it could raise as much as $350 million in such an auction. 

The trigger for such auctions would be when more than one business or individual wanted access to the same number. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona and senior member on the Commerce Committee, is reportedly interested in the idea and estimates 300,000 numbers could be auctioned. 

A spokesperson for AT&T contacted by Reuters called it a "bad idea" that is "unfair to small businesses." Interactive CallBrand's Oppenheimer believes that many firms and individuals have been timid about asking their RespOrgs to request "unavailable" status for prospective "888" numbers. With all the talk of auction, she reasons, many firms have come to believe that putting their numbers into the set-aside is akin to putting them up for sale. 

Oppenheimer believes that the set-aside system is fundamentally pro-user. Because both large and small users cast their lots in the same bucket, it represents a true pooling of interest among constituencies that do not customarily see eye-to-eye. Oppenheimer sees a number auction as "one step closer to legitimizing brokering." She adds, "The next step will be to see them on a corporation's balance sheet." 

COPYRIGHT 1996 Opus Research