Toll free telephone numbers celebrated their 50th birthday this year (frankly, without much fanfare). These numbers allow callers to reach businesses without being charged for the call. When long distance calling was expensive, these numbers were enticing marketing tools used by businesses to encourage customer calls and provide a single number for nationwide customer service – for example, hotel, airline or car rental reservations.

Toll free numbers are most valuable to businesses when they are easy to remember because they spell a word (1-877-DENTIST) or have a simple dialing pattern (1-855-222-2222). Like all telephone numbers, however, the FCC considers toll free numbers to be a public resource, not owned by any single person, business or telephone company. Toll free numbers are assigned on a first-come, first served basis, primarily by telecommunications carriers known as Responsible Organizations. The FCC even has rules that prohibit hoarding (keeping more than you need) or selling toll-free numbers.

But the rules will change if the FCC adopts its recent proposal to assign toll free numbers by auction as it prepares to open access to its new “833” toll free numbers. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued last week proposes to auction off approximately 17,000 toll free numbers for which there have been competing requests. The proceeds of these auctions would then be used to reduce the costs of administering toll free numbers.

The NPRM also contemplates revising the current rules to promote the development of a secondary market for toll free numbers. This would allow subscribers to reassign toll free numbers to other businesses for a fee (think 1-800-STUBHUB!). The FCC suggests this would promote economic efficiencies, as the number would presumably be better utilized by a business owner willing to pay for it than by the company that merely happened to claim it first.

The proposed rules are not without controversy. Some toll free numbers are used to promote health, safety and other public interest goals (e.g., 1-800-SUICIDE). The NPRM seeks comments on whether toll free numbers used by governmental or certain non-profit organizations should be exempt from the auction process. There are also questions about whether the expected demand for the 17,000 new numbers will erode if claiming a number is no longer free.

Comments in this proceeding will be due 30 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register, with replies due 30 days after that. If you are interested in filing comments, you can reach us at 1-888-387-5714. After all, it’s a toll free call.