Toll-free phone numbers using the next area code in the 800 series will be up for grabs starting this December.

A new toll-free area code is about to become available. Put your hands together for 844, which is set to join the ranks of 888, 877, 866, and 855, and, of course, the venerable 800.  844 will be the sixth toll-free code. Two more are on deck for future use – 833 and 822. Note: 811 is not a toll-free area code; rather, that has been reserved for the “Dig Safe” (formerly known as “Miss Utility”) three-digit dialing code used to notify the appropriate folks of planned excavation that might disrupt underground pipes or wires.

The establishment of a new toll-free area code gives rise to potential opportunities and problems. You’ve got four months to figure out what it might mean for you.

Before we get into all that, though, we must express our surprise that the demand for toll-free numbers continues to mushroom. After all, many people are migrating from conventional landlines to cellphones and IP-based services which don’t charge for what we used to call “long distance” calls. If there is no toll, why worry about setting up toll-free numbers? We don’t know, but we do know that the demand continues unabated.

How unabated?

The existing supply of number is running out. Area code 855 was opened up in 2010 and is now almost exhausted. (Wrap your mind around this: for each area code there are more the 7,500,000 usable phones numbers. As mentioned above, there are already five toll-free area codes in service. You can do the math.) The FCC has accelerated the date when a new area code 844 will be opened up: it was scheduled to be opened on February 15, 2014, but the FCC has now advanced the date up to December 7, 2013.

The introduction of a new toll-free area code can be a Big Deal. Many companies use vanity numbers (like 1-800-COMCAST, 1-VERIZON, or 1-800-FLOWERS) for promotional purposes.  A new area code provides new opportunities for jumping on that bandwagon.

But when a new area code pops up, numbers are assigned on a first come, first served basis. And some unscrupulous folks often try to sign up for numbers that correspond to promotional numbers assigned to other area codes. (For example, 1-844-FLOWERS.)   Why would they do that?  Possibly in the hope of picking up business from unwitting callers who fail to recognize the significance of the area code – so the callers dial 1-844-FLOWERS instead of 1-800-FLOWERS and end up reaching somebody they may think is the widely advertised floral distributor, but isn’t. An alternative, similarly unscrupulous purpose: trying to sell the new number to the company that has a true promotional interest in it. To the extent that a number can have considerable promotional value, rest assured that some folks will figure out an angle for cashing in.

So there tends to be a rush for new numbers when the first come, first served opportunity arises.

Note: It is against the FCC’s rules to obtain phone numbers for the purpose of holding them in reserve, or for the purpose of selling them to somebody else. But that doesn’t stop people from trying, and culprits are often not caught. Another note: some vanity number holders have registered the words represented by their numbers as trademarks, thereby preventing others from publicizing the words. (Because of that, our 1-844-FLOWERS example is probably not precisely accurate, because the holder could not advertise “1-844-FLOWERS” but could advertise 1-844-356-9377, or not advertise at all and just wait for callers to make dialing mistakes.)

Figuring out how to give existing number holders a first shot at the same numbers in the new area code is pretty complicated, especially when a lot of people still try to grab numbers for improper purposes. Toll-free number reservations are made by Responsible Organizations – known in the industry as “RespOrgs” – which have to meet certain qualifications and include long distance companies, resellers, and independent entities. When area code 855 opened up, the FCC tried to slow down the land rush by limiting each RespOrg to 100 numbers a day. The FCC invited comments in May of this year as to how it should allocate 844 numbers. While it has not yet made a final decision, it seems inclined to follow the same 100-per-day rule for the first 30 days, after which the usual first-come, first-served rule will resume.

The gun at the 844 starting gate will be fired at high noon Eastern time on December 7, 2013. It should be a good show, even with a 100-number-a-day limit per RespOrg, since there are a lot of RespOrgs out there (Wikipedia reports that there are 300; but in 2010, the FCC reported that there were 425 of them). In other words, up to 42,500 numbers a day may be reserved.

No, we don’t have 1-800-FHH-LAW1 and aren’t planning to go after 1-844-FHH-LAW1.