A Brief History of 1-900 Premium Toll Phone Numbers

Old Style Home Telephone

Old Style Home Telephone

Premium toll, or 1-900 lines as they are famously known in the US, have had a long and chequered history among companies and subscribers alike. In the early 80’s, AT&T was tasked with providing said numbers for use in situations where networks were polling their viewers in a bid to catch the mood of the public on a variety of subjects. In the States, The numbers were first tried out by ABC in a bid to find what the public thought about the just concluded debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. The exercise was a resounding success, and the practice picked from there.

It is important to note that there is a bit of confusion regarding the first documented use of this number, with some accounts pointing out that premium rate calls were actually used in 1977 after the election of Carter, where viewers were supposed to call in and pitch questions to the president. The official position is that the earlier uses of the number were ad-hoc, and that the restructuring carried out by AT&T in 1980 officially flagged off the technology. Back in the day, the regular charge was $50 per call, after which the proceeds would be shared by the service provider and the company drawing callers in on various topics.

When a premium rate is applied, then the charges billed to the customer are way higher than the prevailing market price for a regular call. In situations like that specific, premium rate numbers are used. One of the key differences between premium and regular calls is that in the former, some of the fee is paid directly to the company providing the service while the latter does not operate quite like that. A premium contact is handled precisely the same way a toll-free call would, regardless of the areas involved. Due to the fact that premium calls tend to be expensive, blocking is now being provided to ensure that subscribers do not have to pay for services they have not requested or enjoyed.


In 1980, the 1-900 was redesigned to factor in area codes, and this structure remains to date. The pricing outlook has varied over time, and there are situations in which the rate diminishes as the user racks up more minutes. At the beginning, there were no restrictions as to who could access these numbers at any time, which is why a child racked up a bill of $17,000 in 1987. The California Public Utilities Commission moved fast, passing statutes that required companies to restrict access to premium rate exchanges. The technology was open for use, and up to the late 80’s, whoever wanted to provide the services did and made plenty of money while at it. This led to congestion in the market, and there were widespread calls from the public and lawmakers to streamline the technology and restrict its application.

In 1985, AT&T had introduced a system whereby it paid out commissions to companies wishing to use the system, but this state of affairs was to change dramatically two years down the line. The same provider now decided that each sponsor could set a premium rate but with a maximum limit placed at $2.00 per minute. This new approach came with plenty of weaknesses, the major one being that it could not allow multi-programming, hence restricting the interactive aspect of calls.

The 90’s: a period of diversification

In the late 80’s, the focus on shows and polls remained, but there was a strong desire to move to areas that had not been explored before. The adult entertainment took notice of the potential of premium rate calls, and they dug in with zest. Companies cropped up and encouraged users to maximize the application of these technologies in adult sexual communication and the culture grew. Such an approach may not have been perfect, but it certainly formed the basis of what we now know as modern dating chat lines. Today, we have vastly sophisticated avenues such as QuestChat and LiveLinks, and while they are hugely advanced, they thrive upon an idea hatched in boardrooms in the late 70’s and put into use in the 80’s and 90’s.

1-900 numbers also came in handy when companies were offering technical support, stock market information and banking services. While the use of premium rate numbers boomed in the early years of diversification, application dwindled going into 1991, and companies such as MCI and AT&T. The early 90’s also featured the vigorous commercialization of pay-per-call services, regardless of the audience involved. Marketing gurus started enticing children to make calls by use of cartoon broadcasts and Santa Claus ensemble. Parents raised an alarm as a result of increasing phone bills, and the FTC moved to streamline things, scrapping off such commercials in the process.


Premium rate numbers have faced plenty of setbacks and criticism. After inception, companies took advantage of unsuspecting users to drive phone bills sky high. Advertising had little in the way of discretion, which led to exposure and exploitation of children. Scammers also joined the fray, making it hard to distinguish between legitimate companies and unscrupulous businesses out for easy cash. The number is very much around, but the scale of use is not as it was, say, 2 decades ago.

Modern times

Today, premium rate lines are used for a variety of purposes, and the top ones involve:

The internet has played a pivotal role in the diminishing importance of the 900, as have other factors indicated earlier. The authorities in the United States and some parts of Europe provide a stringent set of rules governing the use of these numbers-for example, consumers are granted the right to disclaimers before making calls. They are also allowed to block specific numbers and can hang up three seconds into a call to avoid getting billed.

1-900 numbers have been around for over three decades now. Starting out in the USA, they quickly made inroads across Europe and South America, looping in diverse audiences from across the board. They have now been eclipsed (to an extent) by the internet but still find use in banking, customer care and dating.