USA Today Reports on Free Directory Assistance

A while ago our moderator mentioned much less expensive directory
assistance being offered (at around 65c per call) than the current
crop of gouging "operators" (at upwards of $1.25 or more for local
listings, with out-of-area listings being anywhere from $1.99 to a
whopping $3.49). Well, now there's an even better offer.
Page B1 of the Money section of USA Today for today April 4, 2006,
lists 3 services providing free directory assistance (DA) if you're
willing to listen to (up to) 15-second advertisements. The article by
Paul Davidson, "Free 411 info on call if you'll listen to ads," points
out that the price of DA is getting so expensive, "Now, calling 411
will nick you for the price of a starbucks coffee."
There are currently three services, and until I saw the article in the
paper I didn't know of any of them. 1-FREE-411 (800-373-3411) and
1-800-411-METRO (800-411-6387) debuted last year; 1-800-411-SAVE
(800-411-7283) starts today "after trials in Chicago and San
Directory assistance charges are a whopping $7.2 billion a year.
Estimates are that only 7% of customers realize how much a DA call costs
them. Telcos have been boosting prices to make up for revenue which is
not coming from the calls people aren't making (to paraphrase Yogi
Berra). While 69% of all calls are placed from landline phones,
Wireless DA is still a big profit center at $1.50 per call.
The 1-800-FREE-411 service got 7 million calls from 2 million users
last month. These free services could conceivably reach 1% of all DA
calls and 6% by 2011. "Even if the three of us were to split a small
piece of the market, that's still a giant number," according to Mike
Loftus, who is CEO of 1-800-411-METRO.
Basically they are taking a page out of free services on the Internet
by offering targeted ads, e.g. if you're looking for a pizza place,
they might also mention Pizza Hut or Papa John's. Too add to the
benefits, (especially if the number might be a long distance number),
1-800-411-METRO offers free automatic connections to businesses.
I decided to rate the service and tried my own number. I called
1-800-411-METRO and asked for a residential listing, my own number, and
gave my street address as there are many people named Paul Robinson in
the area. When I ended up with a live operator she reported that the
number is unlisted. This is news to me as I have never asked for my
number to be unlisted, and it appears in the white pages of our local
directory (I just looked), as it has for more than six years.
1-800-FREE-411's recording apologized as all circuits are busy now and
I should try again later.
1-800-411-SAVE could not find my listing either. It found some others
named Paul Robinson and a Paul G (which is not my middle initial).
I then tried 411 (which would be Cavalier, the phone company I use)
and discovered that *they do not have me listed either*. (They also
found the same Mr. Paul G. Robinson too, but not me).
So now I am encouraged to find out why. A relative here suspects she
may have given a request for non-listing (or maybe it was marked for
listing in the white pages but not in 411) if someone had asked her,
as she has always had her number unlisted.
I called Cavalier and there is no special marking on my account so I
put in a trouble ticket and the clerk says they will have it fixed but
it may take up to 1 business day. Which is okay, mostly I'm concerned
that if I didn't make sure it's right I might end up not being listed
in the directory. (Since the Verizon white pages were issued July,
2005 it's probably getting close to the deadline so it's a good idea I
found out in case there might be a problem.)
So making this attempt has allowed me to learn something. I think
I'll retry this experiment in a week or two and see what happens, and
I'll let the readers of the Digest know, one way or the other.
[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Thanks for the mention of the free D.A.
services. Prior to going into the hospital earlier this week I had
been thinking about mentioning 800-411-METRO but had not gotten around
to it. I had received one piece of email from them asking about
possibly becoming a sponsor here at the Digest (but they did not write
back again) so naturally, I was going to discuss them, and I shall
anyway and just maybe they may decide to favor me also! :) Mike
Sandman specifically built and is selling a 'diverter' box for them
(I have a couple of them on my PBX lines here at home) which serve the
purpose of 'listening for 411' as the first three (and only) digits
dialed at which point it breaks the connection and redials out to
1-800-411-METRO. You listen to an advertisement of 10 seconds, then
a robot asks you "is this a business or residential listing?" You
respond and the robot comes back and asks "what city and state please?"
You tell it that information, then the robot asks for the listing
desired. You tell it that and it goes away a couple seconds then comes
back and advises "please hold for an operator".
A live operator then comes on, clarifies what was requested, and tells
you "hold for the number". _Then a second ten second advertisement is
played out_
and the number is given. But here is the interesting thing
about 800-411-METRO: If you do not hang up at that point, having heard
the number but stay on the line, it then _dials the number and
completes the call_
at apparently no extra charge. They (411-METRO) do
not seem to be very good about answering my email: I wrote them and
asked if 'auto call completion' (like Cingular Wireless at least
around here) was going to be a regular part of the package or if I had
stumbled onto a temporary malfunction that day; they did not answer
me. It still seeems to do that each time I use it. (Pass the number,
then play a _second advertisement_ then connect to the number).
The intercept box Mike Sandman built (he says to their specifications)
is necessary, but has a minor problem with it. I will mention the
problem first: around this part of the country at least (s.e. Kansas
in SW Bell territory) one does _not_ dial '411' for directory; one has
to dial '1-411' for directory and if you are accustomed to dialing
1-411 it is a hard habit to break out of and dialing `1-411' bypasses
the intercept entirely and goes to, well, SBC's 1-411 service at their
dollar and a half charge or whatever. If you are accustomed to only
dialing '411' then the intercept box does just what you would expect
it to do: no training of your employees is needed. Let them dial as
they wish, they always wind up getting 411-METRO as a result. But if
your employees/customers/users are traditionally trained to dial into
1-411 and they do that, then the intercept misses the point entirely.
I asked Mike if the box could be 'idiot-proofed' for use with or
without a leading '1'. He said it could not, unless it was also built
to look for '555-1212' combinations and a few other things. But what-
ever he sells them for (I think around $30.00 more or less, ask him at or
formatting link
) they are definitly worth it
to stick on your outside lines if 411 charges are an expensive burden
for you.
Why is this sort of 'interceptor box' needed for 411? Well, theoret-
ically it should not be. In the Bell divestiture or modifications to
it later on, one of the 'services' Bell had to get rid of -- or at
least treat at 'arms length' was Directory Assistance. Just as they
had to give you your choice of LD carriers, LD operator assistance,
and give their own repair service a 'not so easy' number as '611' to
remember, they were _supposed_ to do the same thing with '411'; that
is let it go to whatever default the customer picked. My 411 went to
my choice of service, yours to your choice of service, and something
like the ten-ten codes if you wanted something other than your own
personal 411 default value. Bell seems to have forgotten all about
that part of the deal :( ... and don't bother holding your breath
while asking them to default _your_ 411 to METRO or any of the other
services other than their own high-priced cash-cow directory bureaus.
That's just like twenty years ago when if we wanted to *absolutely
that our people sent LD traffic via MCI we had to dial those
950 numbers first. Maybe someday the courts will force Bell to give
people a convenient dialing pattern on directory assistance as well.
Anyway, for now, either use one of the inexpensive directory services
such as 877-EASY-411 (our advertiser here in the Digest) or use
800-411-METRO and listen to advertisements, or best of all, get one
or more of the little diverter boxes from Mike Sandman to force your
users into doing it the way you want it done. If anyone can get an
answer from 800-411-METRO about the 'free auto call completion' thing
they do, share that answer with me also. PAT]
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Paul Robinson
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