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.

If you have a complaint about local 411 directory assistance, chances are you are a) lazy and b) gainfully employed. An industrious person simply grabs the phone book. The self-employed are too cheap to pay the 25 cents that the phone company (in my state, Maryland) charges 411 users after they run through the monthly allotment of six.

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Well, I am lazy, and a corporate underwriter paid for my directory assistance calls until quite recently. As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, I dialed 411 whenever I needed a number, even if the directory was literally within arm's length. (My belated apologies to the owners, the Tribune Co. If you're still looking for ways to cut the budget, may I suggest following Reuters' lead? The news agency recently told its employees to give up 411 and use the Internet.)

I began collecting string on 411 misadventures several years ago. It's an anecdotal archive, to be sure, but the problems clearly spiked up in the late '90s, after the local company, C&P Telephone, gave way to Bell Atlantic, which morphed into Verizon.

It's hard to pick a favorite story. A friend's attempt to call Yung's Chinese Carry-Out, which led to a local day-care center, perhaps? But the one that pushed me over the edge from muttering crank to "I-need-to-speak-to-your-supervisor-now" avenger was my request for the number of a health club that was literally next-door.

The operator said there was no Downtown Athletic Club on Baltimore's Centre Street. Had to be, I insisted. It's been there for more than 20 years. Nope. How about Merritt's Downtown Athletic Club, I said. Uh-uh. Frustrated, I kept her on the line, even as I grabbed a phone book and found the number.

"It's in the phone book," I said. "How can you not have the number?"

"We don't have everything in the phone book."

Time to talk to a supervisor. I began: "Where are you?"

"I couldn't possibly tell you where we are," the supervisor said, clearly afraid that I was going to show up on her doorstep.

"I don't want to come there. I just want to know if you're actually in Maryland."

"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."

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."

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.

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