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'1-800' runs out '888' to rescue; New toll-free code will ring in March 1


WASHINGTON -- In less than two weeks, the people who run America's telephone systems are going to dial 1-888-WORRIED and install a new toll-free dialing system.

A new set of toll-free numbers -- area code 888 -- will be added March 1 to the "800" numbers that callers now use to order flowers, make plane reservations, even complain to the IRS.

The old dial-1-800 approach almost ran out of numbers, a dreaded situation that telephone engineers call "numbers exhaust."

Installing the new toll-free network will be more complicated than simply issuing new 888 numbers to the next businesses that want to get onto the system, industry spokesmen say.

"We have a big public education job ahead of us," said Karen Way of AT&T;, one of 140 companies authorized by the Federal Communications Commission to sell toll-free numbers.

One problem is that there will be no "permissive dialing" with the new 888 numbers. The term is used to describe grace periods that often go into effect when new geographic area codes are set up.

With "permissive dialing," when you dial the old area code either your call goes through or a voice comes on the line and tells you what you did wrong.

But if you try to call someone with a new 888 number and you inadvertently dial 800 instead, it'll just be a wrong number.

And since the toll-free dialing system is actually a way of calling collect, the owner of the 800 number you dialed by mistake will probably be billed for the call.

Suppose Joe's Pizza has an 800 number and Massive Merchandisers Inc. gets the corresponding 888 number. Instead a couple of hundred calls ordering the pepperoni-and-anchovies combo, Joe may get thousands of wrong-number calls from people who failed to dial the 888 prefix.

pTC Joe will owe his service provider, known at the FCC as a Responsible Organization or "RespOrg," for all of those wrong numbers.

The RespOrg may waive the charges, said AT&T;'s Ms. Way. In some cases, RespOrgs may install intercepting messages that tell callers to stay on the line if they really intended to call Joe's Pizza but to start over and dial the 888 prefix if they meant to dial Massive Merchandisers.

A public opinion poll last July showed that 99 percent of the public was unaware of the coming 888 service, Ms. Way said. AT&T; and other RespOrgs have worked out promotions and contests to increase the public awareness.

But in addition to getting the public to understand that dialing 1-888 is exactly the same as 1-800 in terms of what you pay, the new service will mean the people who run the telephone system have to get all the call-routing machines to recognize and respond to the new area code.

This will apply to telephone company equipment as well as "PBX" machines, or private branch exchanges, the switching equipment that makes sure calls originating in most office buildings and large organizations go where they're supposed to go.

Since some businesses have invested a great deal to advertise a specific 800-number, such as "1-800-FLOWERS" or "1-800-COLLECT," the Federal Communications Commission has taken steps to make sure current holders of 800 numbers have an opportunity to reserve the same numbers in the new 888 area code.

RespOrgs have been polling their customers to determine which ones wish to reserve the 888 numbers corresponding to their 800 numbers.

It appears that about 250,000 holders of 800 numbers will want to reserve 888 numbers, Ms. Way said.

RespOrgs are now able to begin reserving 888 numbers for their customers, according to an FCC spokesman. They can begin selling the new numbers March 1.

The 800 "numbers exhaust" caught the telephone industry by surprise, said Dennis Byrne, executive director of operations and engineering for the U.S. Telephone Association, the trade association of local phone companies.

People who make their living thinking about telephone numbers identify the 10 digits of every number with a letter. In this way of looking at things, the first digit of the area code is the "A" digit and the first digit of the local number (the fourth in the overall sequence) is the "D" digit. The last of the 10 digits is the "J" digit -- (ABC) DEF-GHIJ.

Of the 800 numbers -- they call it the 800 data base -- the "D" digit is blocked, so that the numbers "0" and "1" are never used in this position. That eliminates 2 million possibilities. With other blocks, the data base consisted at the outset of 7.6 million numbers.

The first 800 numbers were issued by AT&T; in 1967. By May 1993, more than a quarter-century later, fewer than half the 800 numbers had been issued.

However, in the next 18 months the total of issued numbers rose to 5.7 million, and the telephone people realized that they were going to run out of numbers by October 1995 -- numbers exhaust.

The FCC stepped in and started rationing 800 numbers while plans were made for the new system.

"It seemed that 800 went over some sort of social watershed where people began to expect it," Ms. Way said. "People began to feel like a business ought to have an 800 number if they wanted your business."

Toll-free numbers

The 800 system was created in 1967 with 7.6 million available numbers.

Date .. .. .. Number used .. .. %

May 1993 . .. 3.1 million .. .. 40.8

May 1994 . .. 4.4 million .. .. 57.9

May 1995 . .. 6.6 million .. .. 86.8

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