Firms Scramble for New Toll-Free Code

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Some industry insiders rose as early as 3 a.m. April 5 to jockey for the 877 equivalents of certain vanity numbers, but they could have hit the snooze button a few times and still had the same results.


The third nationwide toll-free code, 877, debuted at noon CDT, joining its 800 and 888 counterparts. For the 888 numbers, which launched in 1996, the Federal Communications Commission granted vanity number subscribers the right of first refusal, or the opportunity to turn down their 888 equivalents, before competitors snatched them up.


But for the 877 numbers, the FCC decided that they and any toll-free code after them would be doled out on a first-come, first-served basis. This would ensure that "subscribers would be given an equal opportunity to reserve desirable toll-free numbers as new codes are opened," the FCC said.


Some subscribers had long suspected that the FCC would make such a ruling and already had contacted their RespOrgs, or toll-free service providers, to prereserve their 877 equivalents. Others quickly followed suit after the Direct Marketing Association alerted its members to secure their 877 equivalents in light of the FCC ruling.


Early on April 5, RespOrgs logged into the Service Management System (SMS) database, the central computer system that allows RespOrgs to reserve toll-free numbers and maintain toll-free records. The RespOrgs wanted to ensure that they were linked to the SMS database. But many discovered that a link to the database didn't mean smooth sailing.


"I had three RespOrgs put in a request on my behalf on Sunday right at the moment of release of the 877 numbers," said Loren C. Stocker, a managing partner of Vanity International, a Chicago-based consultancy. "All three of them got locked out of the system for at least 10 minutes, some even got locked out for as much as 40 minutes."


The SMS/800 Numbering Administration Committee (SNAC), which creates guidelines for the administration of SMS, set up a conference call for RespOrgs to discuss reservation problems.


"Just about everybody speaking [on the conference call] was saying they were essentially [frozen] and basically had reserved almost nothing," said David Greenhaus, president of RespOrg The Long Distance Partnership, Burlington, VT. "Then someone said they had just spoken with the SMS people and they said they were showing 10,000 numbers had been reserved. Everybody at that point was wondering who reserved 10,000 numbers when we were all [frozen]."


Stocker speculated that a RespOrg entered a large batch file into the SMS database, causing the other RespOrgs to wait while its numbers were serviced.


"I think the truth of the matter was that the system screwed up immensely," Stocker said. "The system should have serviced everybody and not just serviced this big file. It's like a stadium performance. Everybody is in line and you are No. 8. All of a sudden you get up to the gate, and they hold you there while the guy up ahead of you has 10,000 of his closest friends come in."


Greenhaus said the computer links of some RespOrgs freed up before others, enabling them to reserve what was left of their lists of preferred numbers first.


Stocker, who lost the 877 number he most wanted to AT&T, has sent a letter to the FCC saying that the first-come, first-served process did not promote "the efficient, fair and orderly allocation of toll-free numbers," as the FCC said it would.


"I was denied service at the most critical 10 minutes in the history of toll free," Stocker said. "This was an unconscionable outcome. We believed that this was the moment that our property was purported to be available on a first-come, first-served basis, and we were locked out."


Steve White, president of ResponseTrak Call Centers, Waldoboro, ME, which manages 200 toll-free numbers for itself and customers, has sent a letter to the FCC and filed a motion with the U.S. Court of Appeals urging them to freeze activation and any further assignment of the numbers. He contended that the numbers were unfairly distributed even before the RespOrgs tried to log into the SMS database.


"Let's say a subscriber submitted an 877 request to MCI in December 1997 and another subscriber submitted the same request to AT&T in February 1998," White said. "If at the appointed hour there was the inability of some RespOrgs to get into the database, then isn't it possible that a subscriber who submitted a request on April 1 could get that 877 number?"


White has another problem with the manner in which 877 numbers were distributed, noting that some RespOrgs may have a conflict of interest.


"AT&T has its first allegiance to its shareholders," he said. "As a subscriber of record to toll-free numbers, it isn't likely that AT&T would put my request ahead of its own request under the present system. Is that first come, first served? No, it's the big boys first and the rest of us later."


On April 2, the DMA filed an emergency petition requesting that the FCC "immediately, but temporarily" stay the application of its new rules regarding toll-free numbers.


"We said that first come, first served was not a good answer," said Jerry Cerasale, DMA's senior vice president of government affairs. "If [RespOrgs] were frozen out, that means that lots of people didn't have a chance to get numbers. So maybe at least something better could be done for the distribution of 866 numbers."


At the current rate of consumption of toll-free numbers, the fourth toll-free code, 866, is expected to be introduced in late 1999.
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