With toll free numbers fast running out, FCC declines to delay roll out of new toll free code despite concerns about possible abuses.

If you’ve got your eye on a vanity toll free telephone number you’d like to use – or if you might want to expand an existing vanity number to include another toll free area code – listen up: New toll free area code 844 is about to make its debut. And now the FCC has announced how numbers in that area code are going to be assigned.

Last summer we wrote about the new toll-free code, which is set to become available at noon (ET) on December 7, 2013. At that point area code 844 will join the ranks of 888, 877, 866, and 855, along with the original toll-free 800 code.

All toll free numbers are administered by SMS/800, Inc., which oversees the toll free Service Management System for the North American Numbering Plan. Entities known as “Responsible Organizations” – usually referred to simply as “RespOrgs” – can access the SMS/800 database and reserve particular numbers. If a subscriber wants a particular toll free number, it contacts a RespOrg, which in turn obtains the number for that subscriber from the database.  A RespOrg is not supposed to reserve any number unless the RespOrg is doing so at the specific request of a telephone subscriber.

Anticipating an initial rush for numbers using the new 844 code, the FCC asked for comment on how distribution of those numbers should be handled. Its conclusion: limit each RespOrg to 100 numbers per day for the first 30 days. (The FCC imposed a similar limit when area code 855 first came on line.) After the first 30 days, the usual rule will come back into effect for numbers in the 844 code: like other toll free numbers, they will be assigned on a first-come, first-served basis.

Number reservation is particularly important to companies that use vanity numbers (think 1-800-FLOWERS and the like) for promotional purposes.  Whenever a new toll free area code opens up, it makes sense for such companies to sign up for the same vanity number in the new area code to make sure that no one else grabs it and siphons off business from customers who misdial the toll free code. (Some users have registered their numbers as trademarks, which provides some protection – but trademark registration does not protect them from someone else’s use of the same number as long as that use is not commercially promoted.)

A coalition of a number of RespOrgs questioned the FCC’s distribution plan. “Hold the phone,” they said.  (My mother still says “hold the wire,” a phrase from another era.)  In their view the 100-to-a-customer limit doesn’t really make the 844 numbers available equitably among all RespOrgs because some RespOrgs have “affiliates” with separate RespOrg ID codes. Thanks to such “affiliate” relationships, those RespOrgs get, in effect, 100 daily bites at the apple for each affiliate, obviously an advantage over stand-alone RespOrgs.

Another concern of the coalition: some RespOrgs have direct access to the toll free database through a “Mechanized Generic Interface” which enables them to get their dibs in on particular numbers faster than those who don’t have an MGI. That’s not fair, according to the coalition.

The FCC did not disagree. But no matter, because the Commission is in a big hurry to get 844 up and rolling because the other toll free codes are running out of numbers. It would take the Commission months, even years, to investigate and address possible RespOrg ID abuses. The FCC wasn’t willing to delay its planned December 7, 2013 roll-out – presumably even if such delay might mean some abuses will occur – because doing so would “put unacceptable pressure on toll free numbering resources”.

The FCC also reminded one and all that its rules forbid reserving a number without an actual customer who has ordered the number, and they forbid the sale of toll free numbers. There has been some enforcement of these rules, although something of a black market in phone numbers has not been completely snuffed out.

So we’re off and running on December 7. If you want to reserve a number in toll free code 844, you had better get your telephone service provider primed to hit the right button as soon as the floodgate opens.