- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

Something happened to 411 and long-distance cousin 555-1212 along the road to telephone deregulation. It got costly. It became confused by sound-alike names. It moved out of the neighborhood, placing operators far from the areas they are asked about.

The federal government now is taking steps to help improve competition in the directory assistance market. Some hold out hope these steps will improve the odds that folks will get the right number. But they're not betting on it.

Michael Foer is one who has reason to be pessimistic. Mr. Foer puts his heart into his family-run pharmacy, which occupies a small slice of a District of Columbia shopping center in the shadow of a big-name competitor.

So he was greatly upset when those who called directory assistance for his number were told, "Foer's Pharmacy has gone under" or words to that effect.

The mistake went on for three months, potentially costing him thousands, until his lawyer got on the case, Mr. Foer said, adding, "It makes you want to strangle someone."

Even so, AT&T;, for one, says it provides accurate numbers to 90 percent of callers using its long-distance directory assistance.

"We are always looking to improve upon that," said spokesman Jim McGann, "but we do feel as though the large majority of customers we service are satisfied every day."

Making local and long-distance directory assistance better will be tough, communications experts say, outlining a variety of common problems and why they may persist.

Linda Boswell gets so many calls for City Hall in Chicago that she keeps the number handy so she can dole it out to the misdirected.

The problem: Miss Boswell works at Town Hall in Naperville, an outlying suburb of Chicago. After three years and despite complaints to directory assistance companies, the calls still flow in about 30 per day.

"It just seems like a problem somebody should be able to fix in two minutes," Miss Boswell said. "But we can report it every day and not see a change."

Miss Boswell isn't the only one serving as an unpaid operator.

Western Auto in Dardanelle, Ark., receives so many calls for the Yell County Court that mechanics posted the courthouse number on the wall.

The problems probably are caused by a database glitch, researchers say.

And though local companies may have more up-to-date databases, they probably are as prone to computer errors as those the long-distance companies use now.

"Anyone who has used a database knows it is not an exact science," said John Martin of Consumer Reports.

"I wouldn't expect problems like these to go away."

Bonnie Burke used to work magic as a directory assistance operator in Washington and then as a manager for New England Telephone in Boston.

"[People] would call in with a last name, and say the person had a couple of pigs and we would stay on the line until we found the number," Miss Burke, now retired in Streetsboro, Ohio, said of her Washington years.

As time went by, more services became automated. Pressures grew to handle callers quickly. And companies moved operators out of the places they served and into areas where labor was cheap.

"Now it's all about churning people through as quick as you can," Miss Burke said.

And for the caller, more precision is required in making a request than in the days when Miss Burke could track down the number of the family with pigs.

Asking for L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington may not be enough "No listing," the operator said. The full name is Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel.

Morgan Isley of TeleResearch, a New York think tank, said a misspelled name or location by the operator can draw a blank in a database. Small companies may not find a way around this problem.

"They are likely to find themselves under similar pressures to handle customers quickly," Mr. Isley said.

Like road maps at the gas station and chocolate sauce on ice cream, calling information used to be free. Now, many customers pay $1.99 to get a single number.

It's here that competition may have the most profound impact, analysts say.

As Internet services and small companies move into directory assistance, the big companies have moved to cut prices.

Competition is also getting an assist from government, which forced local phone companies in January to make their databases available to other companies offering directory assistance.

AT&T; created a service that claims greater accuracy and instructs operators to help customers as long as it takes to get a correct number. It costs $1.49 50 cents less than the company's regular service.

Sprint and WorldCom are following suit.

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