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The History of Toll-Free Numbers

The History of Toll Free

The Introduction of Toll Free Calling

With little fanfare and meager expectations, in 1967 AT&T launched a new product called "interstate INWARD WATS."  Actually, "launch" is a strong word, because AT&T never envisioned the radical changes this product would bring to the world of business.  Their new "WATS" service had been developed as a solution to meet an anticipated shortage of telephone company operators.  These operators were becoming overwhelmed by the number of collect calls that were being accepted by businesses.  AT&T believed that this new service, also known as "Automated Collect Calling", was a perfect solution, but otherwise had limited appeal.  Nobody at AT&T would have dreamed that by 1992, only 25 short years after initial introduction, 40% of the calls on AT&T's long distance network would be toll free calls. 

From a Novelty, to Smart Business

In the early years, toll free calling was a novelty and experienced modest growth.  The catalyst for explosive growth in toll free calling came with the creation of centralized databases within AT&T's network in the 1980s.  These databases allowed businesses to have a single nationwide toll-free number instead of requiring different numbers for each state.  The early days of modest growth were long forgotten and almost overnight it became smart business to advertise a toll-free number.  This in turn grew into an expectation that companies wanting business would provide a toll-free number.  By the late 1980's, what had been simply a novelty a decade before, was now a requirement for any serious business.

Toll Free Calling in the Information Age

Today, the combination of a Web site and a toll-free number provides businesses a truly global, electronic storefront.  As businesses harness the power of the Web with the ease of use and ubiquity of the telephone, toll-free will play a major role. From its humble beginning as interstate "INWARD WATS", toll-free calling has become an indispensable part of American life for consumers as well as businesses.

A Timeline of Toll Free History

1967: AT&T launches "Inbound WATS."
1984: Toll Free Services "Unbundled" by MFJ*
1994: Toll Free Number Portability Mandated
1996: "888" Service Introduced
1997: International Toll Free Introduced
1998: "877" Service Introduced
2000: "866" Service Introduced

* MFJ- Modified Final Judgment (MFJ) issued by District Court Judge Harold Greene and caused the divestiture of the "Baby Bells" from AT&T.


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