By Bruce Mohl, Globe Staff
Is it time to deregulate directory assistance?
The idea may be heresy here in Massachusetts, where state lawmakers have granted residential customers 10 free directory assistance calls a month. But with the price of directory assistance rising to unheard-of levels and regulation stifling innovation, maybe it's time to try something different.
Western European countries began deregulating directory assistance in the late 1990s, requiring consumers to select a provider rather than ceding the business to the customer's phone company.
Results have varied from country to country, but consumers overall have a broader range of choices. Kathleen A. Pierz, managing partner of the Pierz Group, a directory assistance consulting firm in Clarkson, Mich., said some European companies trumpet low prices, while others offer concierge-style operators willing to track down a specific type of restaurant and even provide directions on how to get there.
Some companies even cater to a specific customer demographic. In Britain, two directory assistance firms have sprung up that cater to gays and lesbians. The companies look up numbers, but also maintain lists of businesses that are gay friendly.
In January 2002, the Federal Communications Commission became so intrigued by the idea of competitive directory assistance that it began taking public comments on adopting a European-style system, but that's as far as it has gotten.
One reason for that is the opposition of local telephone companies, which dominate the $8 billion-a-year directory assistance business. Phone company executives say the price of directory assistance has risen in recent years to reflect actual costs but has now stabilized. They also say consumers have plenty of options for looking up a number, many of them free.[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: As a matter of fact, one of the sponsors here at TELECOM Digest is a directory assistance service bureau called Easy411. They provide one or two (as requested) inquiries anywhere in the USA _in real time_ for 65 cents per call, which is less expensive than any other directory assistance service bureau around anywhere. Since telcos as of yet still refuse to default calls to 555-1212 to the service bureau _of your choice_ (rather than the one of telco's own choice) you as the customer need to dial an 800 number, and you are billed for your use at 65 cents per call (one or two inquiries). You register the phone numbers you usually use to call DA, thus, no need for any PIN numbers, etc. You can get full details from and this digest makes a small profit on each call. Please look into it, see if you don't think it is a good deal, and quite inexpensive if you are a frequent -- or even just an occassional -- user of Directory Assistace. It is _real time_, the database is updated daily; it is _not_ just something on the internet you look up; it is actual operators to whom you are speaking. No deposits of any kind, no minimal purchase, no obligations or contracts. Just use it when you want and pay 65 cents billed to your credit card. PAT]