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August 1, 1999
The Trouble with UIFN
By Liz Montalbano
Not only are some of the service providers listed on the ITU website
In 1997 the International Tele-communications Union (ITU) announced what pundits hailed
as the latest and greatest in international toll-free services: Universal International
Freephone Numbering (UIFN), which would assign companies a toll-free number that could be
dialed from anywhere in the world. This was considered an improvement upon already
available international toll-free services (ITFS), which required a specific toll-free 800
number to be dialed from each country.
With UIFN, someone could dial a company from anywhere in the world toll free by using
only an international prefix, 800 and an eight-digit Global Subscriber Number (GSN)
assigned by the ITU to the company itself. In theory, the service would eliminate having
to remember a different toll-free phone number from every country; the number would remain
the same, regardless of country or carrier.
If it seemed too good to be true, it apparently was. Two years later, UIFN seems dead
in the water. While the ITU lists 13 U.S. "service providers" on its website,
only a handful of them actually are providing the service to wholesale and/or retail
customers (see chart, "Status of UIFN for ITU’s List of U.S. Service Providers,"
below). Several of those carriers admit they have had problems that discouraged
implementation of the service.
Status of UIFN for ITU’s List of U.S. Service
DirectNet Telecommunications Inc.
Internal testing, future plans to sell
eGlobe (formerly Executive Telecard)
GTE Telephone Operations
International Telecom Ltd.
In beta testing
MCI WorldCom Inc.
RSL COM U.S.A. Inc.
Internal use, rollout of services imminent
USA Global Link
Source: Compiled by the author from company
"There’s a hell of a difference between reserving the numbers and implementing
them," says Alan Garratt, director of public relations for RSL Communications Ltd.,
Hamilton, Bermuda. According to the ITU website, the U.S. subsidiary of that carrier, New
York-based RSL COM U.S.A. Inc., is a UIFN service provider, but Garratt says the company
currently is using the service only in calling card products. He adds that RSL will roll
out UIFN as a service to customers soon.
Not only are some of the service providers listed on the ITU website not actual
providers of UIFN, information for certain companies is woefully out of date. One of the
phone numbers listed for a carrier is disconnected; another is for an entirely different
company. Although MCI WorldCom Inc. is listed as a provider, so is just-plain MCI, even
though MCI Communications Corp. and WorldCom Inc. completed their merger in September of
"It’s proven to be much more difficult than we’ve anticipated," says Lisa
Stanek, program manager for eGlobe, Denver, whose company is listed incorrectly on the ITU
website by its former name, Executive Telecard. For the record, eGlobe does not sell the
UIFN service, although it does have several free-phone numbers reserved for the company’s
Stanek says that although it seemed it would be a cinch to implement UIFN after its
launch in May 1997, the idea that the number would be the same from each country was
misleading. That’s because a user still must dial a country-specific prefix before the
call can go through. This differs from ITFS numbers that, although unique to each country,
use just a basic 1-800-number dialing pattern. Therefore, Stanek says, when providing UIFN
to customers, "you still have to list the country access codes, so it defeats the
Michelle Machado, director of marketing, DirectNet Telecommunications Inc., Newport
Beach, Calif., says that although providing specific country prefixes to carriers was
problematic enough, the inconvenience was exacerbated by a general lack of cooperation
from the ITU.
"We ordered these numbers in 1997, and they (ITU) claimed that you had to use them
in ‘X’ amount of days or you would lose them–originally it was 60 days then they changed
it to 180 days," she says. "But nobody was set up to implement them, and there
wasn’t enough information coming from the ITU. Even after 180 days, we were finding that
the carriers still didn’t have enough information to start implementing them–that process
Stanek agrees. She says that the actual enabling of carrier infrastructure to route
UIFNs correctly has been a hassle. If a U.S. carrier wants to deliver UIFN over a
proprietary network, it still must work with an international carrier and set up an
international gateway switch to intercept UIFN from a foreign PTT’s network. Resellers,
too, must have the appropriate partnerships in place to make UIFN happen. Pile this dirt
atop reserving specific numbers from the ITU, and you’ve got more of a mountain than a
"I haven’t had much help from U.S. carriers," Stanek says of her efforts to
collaborate to sell UIFN. "International carriers have been more helpful … they
seem to be doing better [with implementing the service]."
Sources from the ITU admit there were "teething problems" when UIFN first was
introduced, but say those appear to be minimal after two years of service. While this may
be true, since even carriers that had encountered initial problems–such as DirectNet and
RSL COM–are gearing up to offer UIFN as a product now, for others the damage may have
been done early on.
After eGlobe’s initial struggle to tame UIFN, Stanek says the company basically gave up
on it as a viable product.
"We got [the numbers] set up enough to hold onto them" and have done little
else, she says. Stanek adds that "cost has been prohibitive. You have to be very big
to make it worthwhile."
One company that fits that mold is MCI WorldCom, which rolled out UIFN in 1997.
Although business was slow at first, it has been picking up recently, according to Product
Manager Megan Schultheis. "The service hasn’t caught on in the marketplace as well as
it had been anticipated in 1997," she says. "In fact, we’ve had the most
customers interested in it this year than any other time, and we’re marketing UIFN quite
heavily right now."
MCI WorldCom offers UIFN as both a wholesale and a retail product in more than 18
countries. The company also provides ITFS in more than 65 countries in which it partners
with PTTs so it can assign traditional 800 numbers that will, when routed through a
country’s network, appear to be a toll-free number in that country’s specific toll-free
Another carrier that reports its UIFN services are sailing right along is TeleDanmark
USA Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Danish PTT TeleDanmark A/S. Maria Tafaro, director
of carrier sales for the New York-based company, says it has been offering the service
since 1997 and "we haven’t really run into any problems."
She does concede, however, that, as with other carriers, the international prefix
requirement was a catalyst for confusion.
"We have experienced trouble with the access codes, but that’s not so much with
UIFN numbers, that’s just in general, lack of knowledge about which access codes to
dial," she says. "And not all of the customers, or the customers’ customers, are
aware of this. And that’s usually the problem."
Liz Montalbano is news editor for PHONE+ magazine.
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