411 Is a Joke
I ask for Yung's Chinese Carry-Out, the operator gives me a day-care center's number.
"Oh yes," she assured me. "But I can't tell you where."
Was she in Maryland? Possibly. Here's how local 411 directory assistance—DA, as it's known by telecommunications types—works.
Local DA is provided by whoever provides your dial tone. There is no competition on the retail level. (There are Internet directories and some pay services, but if you dial 411, the three digits drummed into us since the mid-'60s, you go to the local phone service.) If Verizon—or Qwest or SBC—bills you for local phone service, they're responsible for the operators and the databases used for 411. Once upon a time, it was free. Now there are, potentially, 50 rates and 50 different allowances for free calls. Telecommunications activist Bruce Kushnick estimates that three people in 100 know what they pay for 411. Many older citizens still think it's free.
But operations have been consolidated. My "local" 411 call can go to one of 11 centers in the region, which includes Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Virginia; and West Virginia. Right now, for example, Verizon has determined that operators in Cumberland, Md., and Beckley, W.Va., seem to do a better job on Baltimore inquiries than those just outside the city limits, so they're routing calls there.
If all the operators at the local centers are busy, a call can go even further afield. "So you can't ask for the gas station on the corner," a Verizon spokesman said.
"Garbage in, garbage out," he added. He assured me, however, that Verizon operators have state-of-the-art software that allows them to enlarge the geographic area and check for alternate spellings ("Karl's Krazy Kars") with a single keystroke.
But anyone who has ever stumped a 411 operator knows the operators can be reluctant to do much more than stroke those keys. I have never asked for the gas station on the corner, but I have asked for an Exxon station at a major Baltimore intersection. The Exxon was listed under its owner's name. I didn't know the proper name—say, Krazy Karl's Exxon—and the operator had no incentive to help me.
Why is that? Simple: The phone companies deal in volume on 411. A call to local DA is either free or billed at the flat rate regulated by a state's public service commission. The less time spent per call, the more calls an operator can handle, and the more money the phone company makes. And you have to be one dedicated consumer to apply for credit on your account when the 411 operator gives you a wrong number, so chances are the phone company makes money even when it screws up or fails to find a number.
That's why you might get better 411 service on your cell phone, assuming the provider has hired a private company like, say, Metro One of Beaverton, Ore. Most cell phone providers use private companies that will not only look up a movie theater, they'll tell you the show times. Why? Because they have competition.
Verizon fends off the perception that 411 is worse than ever by citing an accuracy rate of 98 percent and a customer satisfaction rate of more than 90 percent. It's possible I'm fixated on the 2 percent, such as the national Verizon operator who said, "Sorry, there is no HarperCollins Publishers in Manhattan."
Likewise, when I called 411 for the Maryland Public Service Commission—they could not find the number. "But it's in the phone book," I told the operator, who was sweet and very flustered by her failure. "Does this happen a lot?" "Yes," she said. "No. Sometimes. I wouldn't say a lot."
Laura Lippman is the author of 11 crime novels, the most recent of which,No Good Deeds, will be published next month. She lives in Baltimore, Md.