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There's a dearth of marketing out there as the new toll-free exchange 877 joins 800 and 888 on April 14, and the result may be consumer confusion.

When 888 rolled out in March 1996, telecommunications marketers were expected by the Federal Communications Commission to spread the word. There's no such mandate this time.

Each new exchange adds about 8 million possible combinations. It took 20 years to exhaust the 800-number supply, but only two years to use up 888 numbers due to the proliferation of pagers, wireless phones, fax machines and other communications devices.

With the expected continued growth of those products, more toll-free numbers -- including 866, 855, 844, 833 and 822 -- are being readied for use.

"At what point does the public get confused enough trying to remember which exchanges are toll free and which are not that the value of toll-free numbers as a marketing and advertising tool is in jeopardy?" said Jeffrey Kagan, president of consultancy Kagan Telecom Associates. "I'd say we are getting pretty darn close."

MCI Communications Corp. said that even though it's not required to do anything, the company is sending out statement stuffers to business customers.

AT&T Corp., which did a heavy blitz of promotions around 888, and Sprint Corp. also are each sending out informal informational mailings.

The addition of 888 got more attention because it was the first departure from 800 and required a change in mindset and marketing from "1-800" to the generic "toll free" service, said Boyd Peterson, analyst with telecom consultancy Yankee Group.

"With each iteration of toll free or even new area codes, there's a desensitivity in what the numbers mean," he said. "With 877, they're saying it's up to the marketer to bear the brunt of burden of education."

Marketers do not have a chance, as they did with the debut of 888, to reserve special numbers such as 1-800-FLOWERS or 1-800-COLLECT. The new 877 numbers are available on a first come, first served basis.

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