The 411 on 411
Dialing 411 to get information, especially long-distance numbers, is no cheap thrill these days. Over the years, the system has become more automated--and expensive. It now costs $2.49 per non-local query for AT&T and Sprint customers, $3.49 for Verizon (which now includes former MCI customers). In 1996, that charge was 95 cents, according to the Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), which monitors long-distance calling charges.
But these are only helpful if you have a computer handy when you need a number. What happens if you're out and about? Well now there are a few new toll-free 411 services. 1-800-FREE-411 offers national coverage while 1-800-411-SAVE provides numbers only for Chicago and parts of the California Bay area.
I've tried the 1-800-FREE-411 over the past few weeks--with mixed results. Several times I was told "all circuits are busy" and had to dial again before I could reach even an automated operator. Once, the connection was so bad I couldn't hear the operator at all. And the automated service was far from perfect. There were times I had to yell the name and location into the phone and if I didn't have the right city, I was out of luck. That was even the case when I tried to find the number for Jingle Networks Inc., the company that runs the toll-free service. Its press releases says the firm is located in Boston, but it's really in a suburb, so the operators couldn't find the number for me. I tried a few times before I resorted to sending e-mails to company executives.
When I finally reached Jingle's president George Garrick and told him my experience, he said that consumer reponse to 1-800-FREE-411 was so overwhelming that the company was not quite prepared to handle all the calls. But the company is busily trying to boost capacity and hopes to have the system in top form in the next few weeks.
How can it be free when other companies charge $2.49 or more? Well, it will be supported by advertising, of course. Domino's Pizza is an advertiser right now, so if I call for the local Pizza Hut number, I may first hear an ad for Domino's--and possibly even be asked if I want to be connected to the local store--before I get the Pizza Hut number. I tried that, asking for my local pizzeria but somehow didn't get an ad. Nor was I connected for free to the eatery--a promised feature of 1-800-FREE-411 that is not always working, at least not yet, Garrick said.
But given the price, "it's worth the hassle," said TRAC chairman Sam Simon. "There's no downside other than the frustration."
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