How Toll-Free Numbers Work

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Whether you’re watching an infomercial on weight loss supplements or an amazing new kitchen tool that can “do it all,” you’ve likely been encouraged to call a toll-free number, also known as 800-numbers in the U.S. So what does “toll-free” actually mean? Let’s go into a bit of detail:

When you dial a toll-free number, the Service Switch Point (SSP) of the telephone network knows that the call is toll-free because of the “800” series prefix. The SSP then asks the Service Control Point (SCP) for routing instructions, which specify where to route the call and what number to charge for the call, instead of making the caller pay.

Some companies also have vanity numbers, which work the same way in which a typical toll-free number would work, only their number usually spells a word (usually the company or a related phrase). A few well-known vanity numbers include 1-800-Flowers, 1-800-Go-FedEx and 1-800-Microsoft.

The first toll-free numbers rolled out in the U.S. in 1967 by AT&T, but to the rest of the world, they were known as “freephone numbers.” And ever since they were introduced, the demand of the service immediately skyrocketed. In fact, it was so immensely popular that by 1996, the supply of 1-800 numbers actually became exhausted in North America, and it was at that time 1-888 numbers came into the picture. Today, toll-free numbers can have a number of different prefixes, including 800, 888, 877 and 866, and all of them work in the same way. When the 866 prefix becomes depleted, we will then start to see the 855 prefix, and so on.

Many businesses opt to use a toll-free number service because of its value. If the number is memorable enough, such as 1-800-Flowers, it can be a primary source of advertising and marketing, potentially reducing annual advertising costs by thousands of dollars.