New York, NY US - Last spring, the Federal Communications Commission released the Fourth Report and Order in CC Docket No. 95-155, regarding toll free service access code numbers - 800 FLOWERS and the like.
The Commission announced that toll free subscribers who have the 888 replicas of their 800 numbers in set aside -- a little-publicized option offered back in early . 96 to a privileged few -- will be able to obtain those numbers.
But this measure to protect existing toll free users does not extend beyond the 888 code. For 877 and future toll free codes, all future numbers are to be assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. The FCC rejected not only the pleas of many parties who advocated a right of first refusal, but also the position of a few parties (among them, ICB Toll Free Consultancy, and ResponseTrak(r) Call Centers) that the Commission should adopt a domain approach in which many-to-one toll free uses, e.g., toll free branding applications, are separated from one-to-one and few-to-one applications (e.g., voice mail, pagers, residential, etc.). The Commission reasons that a first-come, first served approach is the most efficient and equitable, and projects that the need for protection of existing vanity numbers will diminish as the public becomes more familiar with the concept of multiple toll free codes.
ResponseTrak appealed the Fourth Report and Order and sought an emergency stay of the decision on the grounds that the system currently in place does not truly allow for first-come, first-served assignment of numbers on an equitable basis as mandated by the Fourth Report and Order. The Court denied stay (which is rarely granted). What is significant, however, is the Commission's response to the request for stay. In its brief to the Court, the Commission did not deny ResponseTrak's charges that toll free numbers are not truly available to subscribers on a first-come, first-served basis.
Rather, contrary to the clear language of the Fourth Report and Order (and in abdication of informal assurances made by Common Carrier Bureau staff), the Commission argued that its policies only provide for first-come, first-served status at the RespOrg (primarily carriers) level. According to what the Commission told the Court, the policy merely requires Database Services Management Inc., the toll free database administrator, to make numbers available to RespOrgs on a first-come -- it does not matter to the FCC what happens at the subscriber level!
Petitions for reconsideration of the Fourth Report and Order were filed by MCI Telecommunications Corporation, The Direct Marketing Association, and the Toll Free Users' Coalition. These petitioners, like most incumbent users who are minimally familiar with this rulemaking proceeding, correctly recognize that something is wrong with the Commission's toll free number allocation policies, but they are too narrowly focused and thus fail to grasp the depth and breadth of the problem. The primary agenda of the petitions is on protecting against encroachment on existing 800/888 numbers as replicas are assigned in the 877 and later toll free codes. But the petitioners focus on the trees to the exclusion of the forest. Protecting the value of and investment in a vanity number is, to be sure, a valid consideration for individual holders of those numbers. But the far more serious problem with the Commission's toll free policy is that it threatens at best to substantially dilute and at worst to utterly destroy the entire concept of toll free branding.
"Toll free branding" may be a term of art, but it is used here in a broad sense to capture the wide gamut of public commercial use of toll free numbers in the 800 code to market products, to provide access for customers, and in many cases even to identify the firm, product, or service.
Such vanity toll free numbers have taken on a unique characteristic all their own. There is a two-fold synergy at work.
First, there is public recognition of the 800 code not merely as a toll free, non-geographic "area code," but also as a commercial segment of the telephone numbering spectrum. Second, is the investment made to associate specific numbers with specific firms, goods, or services. The value of this phenomenon to the subscribers and its benefit to the consuming public can not be denied.
Toll free branding and other more traditional applications of toll free numbers generally exhibit a many-to-one communications characteristic, i.e., the number is widely and largely indiscriminately published so that large numbers of callers may contact a single firm.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of use of toll free numbers that do not conform to this model. Toll free numbers are now being assigned to pagers, voice mail systems, cell phones, residential numbers, etc.
In most cases these numbers are not advertised to the public at large, but rather are circulated to a limited group of potential callers. In one-to-one or few-to-one applications toll free numbers are used to exploit other characteristics, e.g., the toll free billing, non-geographic routing, and portability. Public recognition of such numbers is of little, if any, value.
What does all of this have to do with replication of existing vanity toll free numbers in future toll free codes? Actually, much more than may initially be apparent.
First, these more recent applications have significantly increased the demand for toll free numbers. Second, they dilute the public recognition value of the 800 code.
It is clear that these one-to-one and few-to-one applications are responsible for the substantial increase in demand for toll free numbers in the early to mid 1990's, culminating in the imposition of number conservation measures in 1996. The toll free numbers desired for such applications, however, were drawn from the same code (800) as the public commercial uses. During the first two decades of 800 toll free service, it was generally the case that an 800 number was not only toll free, but was also associated with a commercial or philanthropic enterprise seeking to provide communications access to the public at large.
In the past ten years this has changed. We now have an 800 number being used in a national marketing campaign sitting side-by-side with an 800 number used exclusively by a student to call home from college, or an 800 number used exclusively by a businessperson to call in for voice mail messages from the road.
We all know and understand the obvious problem facing existing holders of vanity toll free numbers, namely, the threat to the value of the 800 number, public confusion, misdials, etc., if replicas are used by third parties in 888, 877, and future toll free codes. But there is an additional, more subtle problem.
Even if you are not particularly concerned with replication of your particular number, if you use the number in a public commercial context, the value of your toll free number is diminished by this co-mingling of uses within the same toll free code. This erosion will increase as new toll free codes are added and numbers are assigned for both public and private applications from each such code.
Advocates of a domain approach have urged the Commission to separate many-to-one public applications and one/few-to-one private applications into separate toll free codes.
ResponseTrak, for example, has urged the Commission to reserve the 800 and 888 codes for toll free brand applications (or what ResponseTrak calls "enterprise" numbers), while restricting the 877 and future codes for the private one-to-one or few-to-one applications in which the numbers will not be widely publicized at all, much less advertised as a vanity number.
All available evidence indicates that if such measures were adopted, the 800 and 888 codes would be adequate for many-to-one applications for the foreseeable future. By precluding public many-to-one applications beyond the 800 and 888 codes, there is no need to protect existing 800 and 888 numbers from replication in the 877 future toll free codes, making this a more efficient approach in terms of number allocation.
But the most significant benefit of a domain approach is not the most obvious: It preserves a segment of the telephone numbering spectrum as the home of public commercial applications.
In other words, it would preserve the phenomenon of toll free branding.
The Commission seems to have a rudimentary, even if imperfect, understanding of the value of vanity numbers to their subscribers. The Commission must be further educated, however, as to the value to both subscribers and consumers of the general concept of toll free branding. The Commission must learn that protecting individual holders of specific vanity numbers is only half the solution; the other half is protecting and preserving the public recognition of the 800 code as a public commercial domain.
As already noted, however, this is a subtle concept that is not readily apparent to those who are not involved in marketing via toll free numbers.
It is thus incumbent upon the industry, the actual users of toll free vanity
numbers, to educate the Commission.
Author/Correspondent's Profile: Judith Oppenheimer, Publisher, ICB Toll Free (800/888) News