The 411 on Directory Assistance

By FRED A. BERNSTEIN The New York Times March 9, 2006

Calling 411 for directory assistance can be maddeningly expensive. Carriers like Sprint and Verizon charge more than $1 and sometimes as much as $2 a call from a cellphone..

And much of that is profit. Directory assistance "truly is a cash cow," said Saroja Girishankar, a vice president at the Pelorus Group, a telecommunications market research firm based in Raritan, N.J. She and other industry analysts said that the carriers paid wholesalers -- who actually provide the 411 service -- from 25 to 50 cents a call.

Naturally, the wireless carriers and directory assistance companies want to keep the cash cow in their barn. But increasingly, customers have access to free alternatives to 411. And as cellphones become more sophisticated, the options for avoiding paid directory assistance are multiplying.

Already, two new services -- 800-FREE-411 and 800-411-METRO -- offer directory assistance free of charge, though users have to listen to advertisements.

Other companies, including Google, offer free directory assistance via text message. Soon, voice-activated search engines may make it possible to bypass directory assistance entirely. One contender, the Maestro system, a voice-activated search engine being developed at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, will allow users to surf the Web just by speaking and listening.

To keep users calling their paid 411 services, the major wireless carriers have added features like horoscopes, sports scores and stock prices. As cellular bandwidth increases, those offerings will go from voice to text to multimedia, said Tom Moran, executive director of product management and development for Verizon LiveSource. (LiveSource, owned by Verizon Communications, handles about 1 billion

411 calls a year for customers not only of Verizon Wireless, but of T-Mobile, Cingular and Alltel.)

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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: I do not understand why people and companies keep insisting on paying _obscenely high_ rates for DA when there are so many alternatives to xxx-555-1212 and 411. The Directory Assistance service this Digest recommends -- mainly because I do make a wee bit of profit on it -- is 877-EASY-411. The charge is all of

*65 cents* for one or two inquiries, and it is billed your credit card more or less monthly. (The inquiries for the month accumulated). 65 cents per inquiry (or two) still makes money for the people who operate the program and five or six cents for the Digest. So imagine, if you will, the $1.25 to $2.00 per call charged by Verizon, AT&T, SBC, Cingular Wireless and others, to picture the rip offs in this business.

Now just as Divestiture allowed for '1010 calling' the '00' operator and the default long distance 1+ carriers to be chosen by consumers, it also allowed for '411' to be a consumer choice; but _just try_ to get your telco to agree to send _your_ 411 traffic to the bureau of your choice. They will not do it! They may, someday, if/when lawsuits force them to comply with this provision, but until then, telco continues to control the destiny of '411' itself; telco's own choice of overpriced bureau, etc. People who do not like it, have to work around it, just like years ago when we had to dial 950-whatever to use MCI/Sprint. The service which sponosors the Digest is one such example: You have to dial 1-877-327-9411, or 877-EASY-411.

Some users have built that into speed dial buttons on their phones. Other users have added 'intercept boxes' (such as what Sandman offers) to listen on line for '411' and on hearing it, to drop the connection and immediatly dial 1-877-327-9411, at _65 cents per call_.

How do they know who to bill? Well, you enroll for the service by going to

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to sign up. You provide up to five numbers you would ordinarily use to call Directry Assistance. You also provide it with the credit card number you wish to have billed at monthly more or less intervals. When one of those (up to five) phone lines dials into 877-327-9411 the 'caller ID' (or ANI) captured is recorded and you are put straight through to the _live, real-time_ directory assistance bureau and a live operator answers. No need for PINS, little or no chance of cheating on your credit card since presumably you control the (up to five) phone lines used. Maybe one or two for your office, one or two for your home numbers, one for your cell phone, etc. No need to 'login in', no need for 'passwords' etc. Just dial 877-327-9411 and pass your request when the operator answers. The ANI generated takes care of it all, and about once per month (because it is very unrealistic and impractical to submit a credit card charge for 65 cents each time an inquiry is made) they are all batched up and charged to your card. For your protection against abuse by others in your office, I think they will set monthly 'credit cut-off levels' if you ask, and they do provide a print out of your inquiries a few days before the credit card charge is put through if you request it. There is NO fee to sign up, NO monthly minimum usage, none of that stuff. Just 65 cents for one or two inquiries.

If your computer has speakers/sound card you can hear a sample call to EASY411 on their web site. Consider using EASY411 as your directory assistance provider please. It is real time, as up to date as all such bureaus are (within a day or two?), and you will be helping this Digest.

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Monty Solomon
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