411 is a joke.

Department of complaints.
March 21 2002 4:50 PM

411 Is a Joke

I ask for Yung's Chinese Carry-Out, the operator gives me a day-care center's number.

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Don A. Laub, director of the telecommunications division for Maryland's PSC, said the agency receives few complaints about 411—possibly because its job is to control the fees Verizon charges, not to evaluate the quality of 411. "It's seen as a consumer protection issue," he said of 411. "The downside is there's no incentive to innovate."

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Some companies think they can do better than your local telco. Telegate Inc. has petitioned the FCC to offer pre-subscription directory assistance, so you could buy your DA separately the way you do your long-distance service. Such services have already been set up in the United Kingdom and Germany. Telegate and several other companies believe there's money to be made on local 411, especially if they can break local exchange carriers' exclusivity on the 411 exchange.

The local phone companies want to keep the 411 brand to themselves. In the FCC's "Notice on Proposed Rulemaking," released Jan. 9, Qwest submitted a report that predicts revenues from local DA will reach $2.22 billion in 2004, but drop to $2.09 billion in 2006 as "rising Internet and wireless penetration will further lead to reduced usage of wireline local DA service." The Baby Bells also argue there are some technological barriers to pre-subscription local DA, and the FCC agrees. (Still, the report states the FCC has "tentatively concluded [in 1999] that competition in the directory assistance market is in the public interest.")

After reading the 35-page report, I think I can sum up the Baby Bells' paradoxical objections to the proposal this way: It can't be done, it won't make any money, and there's no consumer demand for it, but we'll keep providing DA because we're just really nice guys. Translation: They want to keep their monopoly and all the profits that flow from it.

The thing is, directory assistance has been so bad for so long—98 percent accuracy rates notwithstanding—that Verizon has trained me to stop dialing 411 for information. Reuters was ripped for its penny-pinching ways, but the Internet is a much better source for telephone numbers—not only through standard directories but through home pages with contact numbers and search engines that kick up press releases. That, in fact, is how I found a Verizon spokesman—and also how I tracked down the right person at the FCC. You see, yet another Verizon operator told me she didn't have a general information number for the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C.

The telcos better hope that the FCC doesn't have their number.

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.