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A Seattle startup begins a national rollout this year of a new service that allows cellular phone users to place free 800-number calls. The service could significantly enhance the direct-response capability of the outdoor and radio advertising media.

Toll Free Cellular in October began testing a free 800-number service for cellular phone users, who previously had been charged for airtime on the calls.

To make the free calls, cellular users hit the pound key on the phone and then dial 800.

"We are extending the power of the 800-number to cellular," said Lynn Ridenour, a founder and director of marketing communications for Toll Free Cellular, which has agreements with the two major carriers in the Puget Sound area-U S West New Vector and AT&T Wireless Services.

Toll Free Cellular plans to make the service available in about a half-dozen Western markets in the second quarter, moving into 35 markets nationwide by yearend.

Advertisers in the test market included national hotel chains, Hilton Hotels Corp. and Hyatt, and flower retailers such as Florists' Transworld Delivery Association. Local clients included a number of pizza chains, Bank of America's Seafirst Bank division, as well as the 250-seat restaurant at the Seattle Space Needle.

"You could be sitting in traffic and make a reservation," said Jeanne Datz, director of communications for Hilton. "It is cost effective all the way around."

She said, however, that the hotel chain had not yet decided to continue with the program beyond the test.

Currently there are an estimated 30 million cellular phones in service in the U.S., whose users have an annual income averaging $65,000.

As the phones have hit the mass market, more than a third of new signups are opting for so-called security service plans, whose monthly fees are low but charge high rates for airtime.

That discourages use of the phones for non-essential calls such as making restaurant reservations or ordering carry out, Ms. Ridenour said.

Besides ads from individual businesses using the service, Toll Free Cellular supported the service with a $700,000 radio and transit campaign in the test area from McFarland, Richards & Graf, Seattle.

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