TELEPHONE SERVICES Is directory assistance reliable? Here's the 411

Getting a good number from directory assistance depends on the database and the operator's skill.
So what's the 411 on why you get so many wrong numbers these days when dialing directory assistance -- and often at $1 to $2 a pop, no less?
About 6.1 billion directory-assistance calls were placed in the United States in 2001. No one knows how many receive the wrong number or no number.
But it doesn't take a government study to know that the service can be hit-or-miss: Just try it.
In a test of directory-assistance services offered by AT & amp;T, Sprint PCS and Verizon, attempts to get the home number of someone who has lived in Delaware County, Pa., for nearly two years -- someone easily found in the print edition of Verizon's white pages -- were unsuccessful.
Providers: Today, there are two dozen major players in directory assistance, including the major local and national phone companies and third-party providers -- contractors who furnish information databases and operators to phone companies.
Typically, when you dial the well-known "411" information number today, you'll reach the local Baby Bell. When you dial an area code plus 555-1212, you'll be dealing with a service provided by your long-distance company.
In addition, other providers such as "10-10" long-distance services offer directory assistance.
A sampling of four major local and long-distance companies' information services provided scattershot results -- in looking for local and out-of-state residents and businesses, sometimes correct numbers were given, but sometimes a wrong number or no number at all was given.
How it works: Experts say getting a hit depends on the quality of the database being searched and on the operator's expertise. Although some of the process is automated, operators listen to each request and search for the information.
"You could call the same company two or three times, and one person might find it, some might not," said Kathleen Pierz, vice president of the Kelsey Group, a Princeton-based research firm that studies telecommunications directories.
After the breakup of the Bell phone monopoly in 1984, local information was the province of local phone companies, and long-distance information was handled by long-distance companies such as AT & amp;T, Sprint and MCI (now a division of WorldCom Inc.).
But even with requests to those long-distance carriers, customers were patched through to Baby Bell operators in the local regions they were calling.
Connecting callers to local operators changed around 1998, when long-distance companies created their own end-to-end directory-assistance services, with their own databases and call centers. Last year, the sector generated billings of $5.7 billion, according to Kelsey Group.
In the late 1990s, Verizon (then called Bell Atlantic) and other Baby Bells rolled out their own national 411 directory-assistance service.
Placing blame: Verizon officials say they have seen an increase in complaints in recent years, but that their company is taking some of the heat for errors committed by what they say are less competent competitors.
"Last year, we hired 1,000 people," Linder said. "We trained them for 10 days on how to operate the keyboard and screen. ... We have a great database and great equipment that works well. That, combined with hiring quality people, we think, makes a competitive difference."
The company has about 8,000 directory-assistance operators, each of whom can handle about 1,000 calls a day. MCI says attempts by former Bell companies such as Verizon to shift the blame are disingenuous.
"We receive our [database] information from the Bells and are working off the same information they have," said Audrey Waters, a spokeswoman for MCI.
Pierz said not much separated the quality of big companies such as Verizon from smaller companies.
"It's tough to say that one company is distinctly better than anyone else," Pierz said.
Saving time: For all of them, training operators to shave a second from each call could, over the course of a year, generate thousands to millions of dollars -- so it behooves them to do that, Pierz said.
The Baby Bells do have an advantage, because they control 411 and provide local-phone service to the overwhelming majority of phone customers. But they are required by law to sell their listings to competitors, or to permit those competitors to "dip" electronically into the listings for a price.

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