You could look it up: Directory assistance on the decline



Phone company directory assistance is going the way of person-to-person calls, party lines and rotary dials.

Verizon reports that calls to its directory assistance service have plunged 97 percent in New York state since 2002, mostly because people prefer looking up numbers on the Internet, and partly because more people have switched to cable phone service and cell phones.

Verizon reported the decline in a Public Service Commission filing on Dec. 3 that seeks to boost the price of its business customers’ directory assistance calls to $2.49.

Verizon declined to provide raw numbers on the use of its directory assistance service.

Directory assistance isn’t cheap — Verizon now charges $1.99 to look up a number, and another $1 to have the call automatically completed. Time Warner Cable, a big Verizon competitor, charges $2.99 for the service, while Cablevision says its 411 service is free. Vonage customers on its 300-minute per month plan pay $1.49 for directory assistance calls, but the service is free for everyone else. Time Warner and Vonage also say they’ll connect your call for free. Cablevision does not offer an automatic connection service.

Decades ago, directory assistance was always free of charge. Phone companies eventually decided providing the service was too expensive, and began imposing directory assistance fees in the mid-1970s. New York was among the states leading the way, according to an article in the September/October 1974 issue of Bell Telephone Magazine (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Under New York’s plan at the time, everyone got a 30-cent directory assistance credit on their monthly phone bill. Your first three directory assistance calls were free. Each of your next three calls would cut the bill credit by 10 cents. After that, every directory assistance call would add 10 cents to your phone bill.

If directory assistance rates kept up with general inflation, a 10-cent 411 call in 1975 would cost just 43 cents today, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It used to be that if you didn’t want to pay for directory assistance, you could always look up a number in the phone book. Those are mostly gone too — New York gave Verizon permission in 2010 to stop distributing them to everyone.

Though directory assistance is a lot more costly today, there are also more ways to get phone numbers for free, though ZabaSearch, Anywho, and the like. And if you want to pay, there are Internet services that provide lists of peoples’ phone numbers, addresses, neighbors, relatives and other information unimaginable back in the days of Ma Bell.


About Bill Sanderson

I'm a New York-based journalist, and a former reporter at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, the Bergen Record in New Jersey, and the New York Post. My work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, and Politico New York. Twitter: @wpsanderson.
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