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The Future’s so Bright: Go-Anywhere 500 Numbers are Here

July 11, 1994

NEW YORK (AP) _ The future is here.

Today is the day that managers of the North American telephone numbering system will start assigning 500-numbers - such as 1-500-555-1234 - to companies like AT&T, Sprint, MCI, GTE, McCaw Cellular and dozens of others.

The companies will sell them, possibly as soon as this fall, to people who want one number that will follow them everywhere, from home to office to car.

″You would say, ‘Here is my one phone number, you can reach me on this phone number anywhere,’ ″ said Tom Mateer, director of wireless strategic development for Sprint.

At the outset, subscribers will have to forward their phone calls when, for example, they left home for the office. Later, AT&T, Sprint and others plan to offer a way to automatically advance calls from location to location.

Another idea is for the 500-number to ″search″ for the customer. It could ring twice at home first, twice at the office and twice in the car before going to voice mail if no one answers.

In time, the intelligence of the nation’s phone system will grow to the point where people can simply dial a code on the phone closest to hand and their calls will arrive.

Subscribers will have to pay extra for a 500-number, but pricing has yet to be set. Nevertheless, AT&T announced last week it is signing up customers.

The first ″follow-me″ products were 700-numbers, which debuted several years ago. But they are restricted by phone carrier, meaning that reaching a friend who has a 700-number with AT&T requires a call on AT&T’s network.

The 500-number will be ″portable.″

Bellcore, the research arm of the regional Bell operating companies, administers numbers on behalf of the Federal Communications Commission and an industry committee.

It will assign the 500-numbers by prefix codes, such as 555, 236 or 737. Bellcore has received requests for more than 1,000 prefix codes. There are only 781 available.

Initially, the maximum any phone company can get is four. Since each prefix code has 10,000 possible suffixes (the four numbers that follow), a company that gets four will have 40,000 500-numbers to sell.

″This allows everybody to have an initial quantity of codes to start up their service, see how sales are going and then come back to us,″ said Alfred Gaechter, a Bellcore manager.

He expects about half of the available codes to be handed out this week. In contrast, 800-numbers dribbled out when service began 25 years ago.

The rest of the 500-numbers could be gobbled up a year from now. But 500- numbers can handle just 7.8 million individuals, only 3 percent of the U.S. population.

There is talk of creating 640 new area codes; many of those would be for ″follow-me″ services, meaning the 500-number would not retain its association with permanent, personal numbers the way the 800-number has with toll-free calling.

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