The 1-800 number, staffed by a customer-service rep who debugs your computer or orders flowers on Valentine's Day, has become such an institution that it's hard to believe toll-free dialing has been available only since 1967, and that toll-free service as we know it today has been in place only since 1980. Americans dialed toll-free numbers 20.6 billion times last year. That's more than 56 million calls a day. Today 40% of all calls on AT&T's nationwide network are toll-free. The volume has tripled in the last five years.
Roy Weber, a wry 52-year-old AT&T scientist, is the man responsible for 1-800 Nation. "The patent has my name on it, but AT&T owns it," he jokes. "Otherwise, Bill Gates would the second-richest person in America."
The first generation of toll-free technology, unveiled in the mid-1960s, was primitive. AT&T's network couldn't provide national toll-free coverage, so numbers were tied to geographic areas. That meant early users, like Amtrak and the airlines, had to maintain dozens of 1-800 numbers. The limits of network-switching technology also meant it was hard to distribute calls among call centers, hard to handle big jumps in the number of calls — in short, hard to turn toll-free dialing into a genuine customer benefit.
In 1975, when Weber started working on 1-800 technology, only 5% of all calls were toll-free. His challenge: to use still-evolving digital technologies to revolutionize toll-free service. His breakthrough idea was simple and elegant. Under Weber's system, a toll-free number isn't a "number" at all; it's a pointer to a computer file. The network consults that file for instructions on what to do with the call — and then undertakes an elaborate set of procedures to get the call to the right place at the right time.
For customers with simple needs, like a newspaper delivery service, the file instructs the network to send the call to the same number 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For more demanding customers, it contains more intricate steps. Customers calling DirecTV can be routed to one of three cities — Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, or Ogden, Utah — depending on when the call is made, where the call is coming from, how many other calls are coming in, and how well staffed each call center is. The calculations take milliseconds.
"People laugh at me when I say I invented a pointer to a database, but that's it," Weber explains. His innovation, patented in 1980 and put into service in 1981, makes possible national toll-free numbers, smooth call distribution, and today's personal, portable toll-free number.
It's also what makes Matrixx possible. Indeed, its call-answering network is so elaborate that it receives 1,500 phone bills a month, delivered on CD-ROM.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.