Ahhh, the 1980's. A time when we were Footloose, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Flash Dancing. Our hair was big, our shoulder pads were bigger, and the soundtrack featured Duran Duran, U2 and George Michael. It was also a time when you could dial 1-900 on your landline telephone to pay by the minute for a love line, sex chat, psychics, jokes and more.
900 numbers were premium-rate toll-free telephone numbers providing recorded and live services that were charged back to the caller by the minute. The technology was developed early in the 1980’s by AT&T. AT&T made a percentage of each call, and it is believed that the owners of the first 900 businesses in the 80's amassed a fortune virtually overnight. Other carriers like MCI and Sprint, soon added more 900 numbers creating a flood of call-number entrepreneurs that closely mimics the early days of the dot-com era.
By the 1990’s there were more than 10,000 900 numbers in operation. You could call to play games, get legal advice, order magazines, and vote for Miss America. This was the internet, before the internet, supporting content creators and service providers by charging two dollars or more for each minute they spent on the line. Larger fee (as much as $60) were charged for listening in on lengthy live broadcasts or sports.
This was the internet before the internet supporting content creators and service providers
Abuse in the industry
The 900 industry was unregulated, and people were using these numbers in whatever way they chose. They provided services that were salacious in nature, and adult chat lines sprung up everywhere. It was not uncommon to see late night commercials featuring lingerie clad woman enticing people to call them. Owners of these lines would also inject long wait times into the messages to increase the charges. Many people fell prey to these and other tactics, including children. Phone bills were known to get as high as $10,000 for using chat lines to connect with sex workers, celebrities, or other.
With the rise of moral and ethical issues associated with 900 numbers came an onslaught of regulations to control the providers and protect the consumer. In 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court passed a law blocking 900 numbers providing adult content. In 1992 the Federal Trade Commission stepped in and required the business to add messaging about the fees prior to charging for the call, and refund any disputed billings until the matter was resolved. Carriers were also ordered to provide customers with the ability to block the usage of 900 calls from their homes.
Here comes the internet
At the same time use of Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web was on the rise. Opportunities for businesses on the internet were growing and many of these 900 businesses moved online. Dating lines became dating sites, adult chat lines became porn sites, and celebrity hotlines became fan sites.
Dating lines became dating sites, adult chat lines became porn sites, and celebrity hotlines became fan sites.
By 2000 most phone carriers in the United States had dropped out of the 900 business and by 2012 the last carrier, Verizon, was done with it. It seems the 1-900 service filled a gap and paved the way for online business and the direct interaction we have with consumers today.
Sources: Raviv, Shaun. "The rise and fall of the 1-900 numbers." Priconomics, 4, Oct. 2016.
Associated Press. "1-900 Numbers Going AT&T-Away." Wired, 22, Jan. 2002.
Faircloth, Kelly. "Let's Revisit The Glory Days of th 1-900 Number." Jezebel, 6, Oct. 2014.