Toll free calling began in 1967, with the introduction of the 800 toll free code. It remains a frequently used communications tool, even in the Internet age, as new toll-free applications are developed, including the capability to send text messages to certain toll-free numbers. Yesterday, the FCC released a Report and Order that made several innovative changes to the toll free number marketplace.
First, the FCC revised its rules to permit the use of auctions to assign toll free numbers. Since 1998, the FCC has used a “first-come, first-served” approach, but now asserts that the times have changed such that flexibility in the form of auctions is necessary to meet the statutory requirement that toll free numbers be allocated “on an equitable basis.”
Specifically, the FCC states that the first-come, first-served approach has “rewarded actors that have invested in systems to increase the chances that their choices of toll free numbers are received first.” It also states that assigning numbers at no cost “has allowed accumulation of numbers without ensuring those numbers are being put to their most efficient use.”
The FCC will not waste any time using its new auction authority. The 833 toll free code, which was opened in 2017, currently has 17,000 “mutually exclusive” numbers. Mutually exclusive numbers are those subject to multiple requests. The FCC has established the 833 Auction to sell the rights to these numbers.
The Report and Order also revises FCC rules to allow a secondary market for toll free numbers purchased in an auction. Currently, FCC rules prevent three types of conduct that make a secondary market infeasible: (1) “brokering,” which is the selling of a toll free number by a private entity for a fee; (2) “hoarding,” which is the “acquisition by a toll free subscriber . . . of more toll free numbers than the toll free subscriber intends to use for the provision of toll free service;” and (3) “warehousing,” where toll free numbers are reserved without having an actual toll free subscriber for whom the numbers are being reserved.
The FCC explained that a secondary market for toll free numbers assigned via auction is desirable because it “permit[s] subscribers to legally obtain numbers which they value.” It further explained that a secondary market promotes efficient operation of an auction by allowing the purchase or sale of numbers in response to the outcome of the auction, and “limits pre-auction costs associated with estimating which—and how many—numbers a bidder may win.” Also, with a nod to speculators, it explained that a secondary market “encourages value-creating entities to promote efficiency by procuring rights to numbers with an intent to sell those rights to other interested subscribers.”
The rule changes established in the Report and Order will go into effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.