War of Words Over Toll-Free Number Ownership

By Lynn Jones
November 13, 1995

Will vanity toll-free number holders like 1-800 Flowers get to keep their special digits when an 888 numbers are issued next year? Not if evil-minded long-distance carriers can help it, judging by comments to the Federal Communications Commission this week.

Loren Stocker of Vanity International accused the carrier "cartel" of using the crisis over the dwindling 800 number supply to "reverse court-ordered customer ownership rights and reestablish 800 numbers as 'their' business assets. Then they can openly leverage 800 numbers they control to close new long-term business contracts."

Mark Olsen, who operates 203 toll-free numbers on behalf of small-business clients, alleged that the carriers are using legal language to "steal 800 numbers from small companies and other start-up businesses for the benefit and use of their larger, more favored customers."

Not that the carriers deny that they want to prevent current holders from getting a lock on their numbers. GTE told the FCC it "does not believe it would be in the public interest for the industry to assume responsibility for protecting vanity toll-free numbers. It would be unfair to those users waiting to use the same seven digits in the 888 code."

The FCC set off this war of words by soliciting industry comments on whether it should:

Allow first right of refusal for vanity number holders like 1-800 Flowers when a new toll-free code (such as 888) is adopted.

Require carriers to put a deposit on numbers they request to prevent number stockpiling

Encourage (but not require) the use of personal identification numbers

Among those commenting was the Direct Marketing Association, which asked that marketers receive first right of refusal on their current numbers to prevent "confusion among consumers as to which company is behind a particular number or acronym," and argued that the FCC proposal should be reworked to "better reflect the diversity of purposes as to why businesses have toll-free numbers, and the pattern for their use in the marketplace."

And the 800/888 Users Coalition expressed concern that a "high deposit on toll-free numbers would create a substantial barrier to entry for small businesses who may not be able to afford the total amount required."

"Most carriers, even supposedly neutral governmental interests, have opposed any recognition whatsoever of any rights of the subscriber with respect to the number," added Judith Oppenheimer of Interactive CallBrand. The carriers deny "even the simple right to replicate (have first right of refusal for) a highly marketed and expensively advertised number in the new 888 service."

Here's a random sampling of carrier comment provided by Oppenheimer:

Allnet: "First-come first serve should be the only criteria for obtaining 888 numbers."

AT&T;: "Each RespOrg (carrier) should be allowed to determine which of its 800 number applications will be eligible for replication."

Sprint: "Barring competitors of current 800 vanity numbers from obtaining the equivalent number in the new toll-free code should not be implemented."

Cable & Wireless: "The Commission must be careful to avoid setting a precedent which would allow subscribers to obtain property rights in their telephone numbers."

Direct marketers have until Nov. 15 to submit a second round of comments to the FCC.


1995 Intertec Publishing - A PRIMEDIA Company