Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Choosing a toll-free number

When was the last time your had a business with a toll-free number? Was it back in the mid-1990s, when the "new" area codes 888, 866 and 877 started showing up?

My step-daughter recently asked me "what the deal was with the 877 area code?" She grew up in an era when long distance was always free on her cell phone. It got me thinking about how things have changed with Ma Bell (even saying that will date me, I am sure).

I had an 800 number back in the day when I thought it was important for people to easily call me. This was when I had 128 kbps ISDN "broadband" Internet, and had to pay something like two cents a minute for each call to my ISP (that cut down on my surfing time, to be sure). Most of the time I got wrong numbers, which I paid I think regular long-distance charges for. I think my business phone bill was around $300 a month, including the ISDN access.

Fast forward to today, where my personal phone bill is around $200 a month and the thought of having a "dial-up ISP" and ISDN puts you back in the cretaceous period. Of course that includes several cellular lines, DSL, and unlimited wireline long distance. But there are still some situations where you might want to have a toll-free number for your business, or even personal needs. So what do you do?

The easiest and cheapest way to get a toll-free number is if you already are a Vonage VOIP customer (there are still a few of us diehards around). It costs an extra $5 a month with a $10 activation fee, and you have your choice of 877 and 866 numbers with 100 minute in-bound calls. The number is tied to your existing Vonage line, of course, and it takes seconds to sign up via their Web site. Clearly, these guys get how to do self-service features.

If you aren't a Vonage customer and don't expect a lot of calls, you can get a toll-free number from for $10 a month that includes 30 minutes of inbound calls on one of their messaging plans. After that, the price is 7 cents per minute, which can add up. A better deal is a plan from, where the same $10 a month gets you 200 minutes, and then 4.9 cents per minute after that.

And is just one of a number of Web sites that allow you to type in your name or some catchy seven-letter phrase and see if you can match it to a particular toll-free number, where the first 100 minutes will cost – you got it -- $10 a month plus a $29 activation fee. They offer all the various toll-free prefixes too.

There are a number of differentiating features on all of these plans: some will send your voice mail calls to email-based notifications and voice attachments, some will allow you to have multiple "extensions" on your line for different users, some can forward to different numbers or have a "follow-me" type of service, and some will have toll-free fax tied into the voice line too.

Speaking of Ma Bell, I tried to get information from AT&T's various Web sites about toll-free numbers, but wasn't able to find anything even after I entered my login information as one of their customers. That is shameful, and just goes to show you how far we have with toll-free calling.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.