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This story appears in the November 1997 . Subscribe »

Imagine your customers--in virtually any country--being able to contact your business with one toll-free number.

That's now a reality, thanks to recent advancements made by the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva. Since June, the ITU, which regulates telecommunications issues across the globe, has been issuing toll-free numbers worldwide. It wasn't possible before June because each country relied on its own toll-free plan. But that's all changed--and the ITU has finally established a universal toll-free standard, linking dozens of industrialized nations.

"Today, more than $157 billion is traded annually using toll-free lines, and that's mostly in the United States," says Patricia Sieh of AT&T, one of six U.S. carriers authorized to apply for the numbers. "The prospects for the growth of international trade are tremendous."

AT&T pioneered the concept of toll-free phone service 30 years ago. An impressive 7 million toll-free calls were made that first year--an ever-growing tally that topped 20 billion in 1996. Even those figures are sure to climb, however; businesses vying for a chance to market a single number to their countries of choice are clamoring for these next-generation toll-free numbers. When the ITU accepted its first round of applications, more than 20,000 poured in.

The new numbers are being administered on a first-come, first-served basis. But don't worry about the ITU running out any time soon--an eight-digit format, instead of the traditional seven, ensures millions of additional combinations.

The ITU application fee is about $160; contact AT&T or one of the other authorized carriers (Cable & Wireless, MCI, Sprint, USA Global Link or WorldCom) for more information. Once your application is received, you can expect confirmation of your new number within three weeks. The ITU requires carriers to make the number operational within six months of notification.

Some advice for the global-minded: Numbers that spell out words might not work in other countries if the letters assigned to foreign keypads don't correspond with yours. Also, registering a clever English phrase might be lost on overseas customers who don't speak the language.

Export Advice

Small exporters take note: A new Web site from American Express is worth a closer look--and perhaps even a bookmark.

Rich in information, American Express Small Business Exchange (http://www.americanexpress.com/smallbusiness ) is designed to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses by providing access to business planning information and networking opportunities. Content furnished through a partnership with Boston-based International Strategies Inc., a provider of global information services for small and medium-sized firms, is a highlight not to be overlooked--especially by entrepreneurs scoping out international markets.

Just click "expand internationally" on the home page, and you're immediately linked to valuable market research reports for 78 countries. You have two report topics to choose from for each country. The Export Issues report covers trade regulations, negotiations, banned imports, labeling requirements and patent information. The Business Travel and Protocol report encompasses entry requirements, health considerations, major commercial holidays, common phrases, attitudes toward Americans and more. "[The reports] provide information somebody would need to do business in that country," says Michael Jaffe, the site's manager.

The standard reports are free, and you don't have to be an American Express cardholder to use them. In-depth country reports can be purchased from the International Strategies Web site at http://www.exporthotline.com

Contact Sources

American Express Small Business Exchange, (212) 640-4863

AT&T International Services, (800) 448-8600

International Strategies Inc., http://www.exporthotline.com

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