800 Numbers: Get `Em While You Can

TOLL-FREE 800 NUMBERS ARE just about used up. Experts say the supply of unused numbers may run out by yearend, if not before. Worse, its successor, 888, likely will not be ready until April next year, which will possibly leave a gap of several months. Corporate America is "very, very concerned," says attorney Colleen Bothby, who represents such big 800 users as General Electric and Bank of America.

The Federal Communications Commission figured that the supply would last until the new 888 exchange kicked in. But a surge in demand for the 800 exchange, partly due to the popularity of personal 800 numbers--such as those acquired for college kids' use--is depleting the 7.6 million possible 800 combinations. Fewer than 600,000 are left, says the FCC.

Responding to what it calls an "emergency," the FCC recently ordered the remaining numbers rationed. If that doesn't work, the FCC may take back some unused 800 numbers. Main target: phone companies stockpiling them against a shortage.

Even if the FCC solves the shortage problem, which appears unlikely, the transition to 888 won't be easy. Many companies with well-known 800 numbers--American Express, for instance, which has 1-800-THE-CARD--are worried someone could grab the corresponding number on the 888 exchange. So the FCC may solve that by just eliminating these popular numbers from 888. A final decision from the feds is expected later this year.

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