Global Toll-Free Service Arrives
By Salvatore Salamone
Communications Week
March 17, 1997

Although E.T. had trouble phoning home, it doesn't mean your users should when they journey abroad.

Currently, there are several million 800 and 888 numbers in use in the United States and Canada. In contrast, there are only about 150,000 international toll-free service numbers in use throughout the world, according to industry estimates. That's about to change.

Global 800 numbers, which are set to roll out this spring in 20 countries, have the potential to extend the usefulness of traditional 800 numbers beyond North America to an international scope.

Global 800 numbers, which are more formally know as Universal International Freephone Numbers, are worldwide, 8 digit, toll-free numbers assigned by the International Telecommunications Union that would allow a company to simplify access for employees and customers alike.

"Employees who travel internationally would be able to call their office while on the road without incurring toll charges," said Chris Busch, Global 800 market director at USA Global Link , Fairfield, Iowa. Similarly, a U.S.-based multinational company could establish a Global 800 number for employees in foreign offices to communicate with people in headquarters.

Corporations might also use Global 800 number to help customers and attract potential new customers. "A company could provide a Global 800 tech-support number for foreign customers," said Busch. "Or, a company might simply publish a Global 800 number for potential customers to call to obtain product information." This would let a U.S.-based company run the same phone number in advertisements and product literature internationally.

Global 800 numbers have the potential to help U.S.-based multinational companies, but foreign companies also could gain by using them. When it comes to 800 number activity, "95 percent of consumer action is in the U.S.," said Judith Oppenheimer, publisher of ICB Toll Free News, an online newsletter specializing in toll-free issues and support. "[Global 800 numbers] could help non-U.S. companies enter the U.S. market."

Demand Not Blossoming

With all this potential, you would think companies, especially those with so-called vanity numbers like 800-FLOWERS, for example, would be quick to stake their claim to comparable 8-digit equivalents.

"We figured about a quarter of a million Global 800 numbers would be set aside," said Busch. "But that's not been the case." The period during which a company with an existing vanity number could reserve a similar number has just ended and only about 15,000 Global 800 numbers were set aside. One factor for the less than expected result might be that the common telephone keypad used in the United States is not standard internationally, according to Busch. After all, it would be difficult for callers to enter vanity numbers if they use a different alphabet. And Oppenheimer notes that "there are a warehouse full of numbers and only a small percent are useful as vanity numbers."

Copyright (c) 1997 CMP Media Inc.