The 800 number, America's wildly popular invitation to call collect, is nearing the saturation point. Some 7.6 million such numbers are available, with 4.1 million now in use. That's up from 3.1 million in mid-1993. If the growth rate continues as expected, 800 will max out in two years or so.
Why the surge? Businesses find it a good way to boost sales and improve customer service. Increasingly, for instance, products come with an 800 number affixed to their labels. New voice-mail technology allows people to do things like check their bank balances by phone without having to deal with an operator. And in 1992, phone companies began offering 800 numbers to households. Result: Several hundred thousand new users who want to let children call home free from college or wherever. The cost isn't daunting, either--$5 monthly with AT&T, plus 15 cents to 25 cents per minute.
What to do once saturation comes is being chewed over by the Industry Numbering Committee, a consortium of all the nation's telephone companies. The likely answer will be to supplement 800, which has been around since 1967, with 300 or 400.