Is this the party to whom I am speaking?

Remembering the days of long distance past

I was looking at the back of a Listerine bottle this morning and I noticed two telephone numbers for customer service:

The first number is an 888 number, indicated as “toll-free,” and the second is a traditional telephone number in the 215 area code, which users are invited to call collect.

It occurred to me that many younger users of the product may not have any idea what a “toll-free” number is, or a collect call.

Today, of course, many people make the majority of their telephone calls on a mobile device, and most mobile providers that I’m aware of don’t differentiate between calls to your next door neighbor and calls to anywhere else in the U.S. In effect, any call to someone within the U.S.A. is a “local” call, in the sense that you aren’t being charged anything extra for it based on distance.

Some people still have landline phones, of course, and they’re also used by businesses — but if those landline phones are connected to a cable system or some other voice-over-IP provider, most of them, too, offer undifferentiated calling anywhere in the U.S.A. as part of basic service.

I am sure there are still people who have traditional landline service, through a legacy telephone company, which charges separately for “long distance” calls, but that number is rapidly declining. And many of the people who still keep their old landline out of force of habit (as I did, until last fall) probably use it more for receiving calls than for placing them. That’s because most of them also have a mobile phone and use it for most of their outgoing calls to out-of-state friends, family or businesses.

Kbrose, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

In the old days, of course, calls within your local exchange were free (or, more accurately, they were included in the monthly charge that you paid for having telephone service in the first place). Calls outside your local community were “long distance” calls, and you’d be charged a per-minute rate for each call. Your monthly bill would include a printout showing the various long distance calls you’d made. A common sitcom trope would be for one of the parents in a household to be paying the phone bill and notice a lot of out-of-state calls. They’d have to figure out who’d made them — perhaps a teenager in the family whose boyfriend/girlfriend had moved away.

Long distance was less expensive for calls placed on weekends or after a certain time of night, when businesses weren’t using capacity. In the later years of long distance, after the government tried to break up AT&T’s monopoly status, there were several different long-distance providers to choose from, and you might change from AT&T to MCI or Sprint in hopes of securing lower rates and/or an earlier start time for those night and weekend rates. For a while, the three companies aggressively fought for customers on TV advertising:

You could also place a “collect” call. The person or business receiving the call would hear the voice of an operator (or, later, a recorded voice). “You have a collect call from Bill Smith. Will you accept the charges?” If the receiving party agreed, the call would be connected, but would be billed to the person who received the call instead of the person who placed it. Many a college student would place collect calls home to Mom and Dad.

Some families would trick the phone company by using a denied collect call as a way of conveying information. Let’s say a college student was driving back to campus after spring break. They would place a collect call to Mom and Dad as a way of indicating that they’d arrived safely. They might use a particular fake name as a code word. (“You have a collect call from Susie Gotthomsafe.”) Mom and Dad would happily refuse the call, everyone would hang up, and no one would be charged. But Mom and Dad would know that the child had gotten safely back to campus. Technically, this was cheating the phone company, but no one seemed to mind.

According to Wikipedia, toll-free numbers as we know them today were rolled out in 1966–1967. A business or organization that wanted to make it easier for people to call in could sign up for a toll free number. Instead of the normal, location-based area code, the toll-free number would start with “800,” and everyone soon recognized that an “800 number” was free to call, even though it had as many digits as a long-distance number. Like a collect call, the cost of a toll-free call would be borne by the receiver, and not by the caller. Eventually, because of demand, all the available 800 numbers were taken and other toll-free prefixes had to be added, including 866, 877 and 888.

So now I wonder, with long distance on the critical list, how much longer will there be a need for “toll free” numbers or collect calls? They already seem like a thing of the past, but how long will there be enough of a need for them to keep them afloat?

Author of “Dislike: Faith and Dialogue in the Age of Social Media,” available at

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