August 31, 1997 in Nation/World

Oops, Wrong Number - Again At&T;’S Directory Assistance Makes Every Call An Adventure

By The Spokesman-Review
 

‘AT&T; can dial your call after you receive directory assistance for an extra 50 cents,” says the operator.

Whether it’s the right call, though, is less certain. Since AT&T; began offering its own long-distance directory assistance two years ago, operators have been cranking out one wrong number after another.

Callers requesting Seattle University’s number have been told the college of 6,000 students doesn’t exist or have been given the number of Seattle Pacific University.

“Essentially they were steering our potential students to one of our competitors,” said assistant vice president J. Paul Blake. “Who knows how many people just gave up. It’s outrageous.”

Callers requesting the Hydra Restaurant in Sandpoint wind up calling Boise Hydraulics. Callers to United States bankruptcy court in Boise get Bankruptcy Judge Alfred Hagen’s private chambers.

“I feel sorry for these people,” said Bruce Briseno, Hagen’s law clerk who answers at least two misdirected calls a day. “First off, I’m dealing with long distance calls and I have no way to transfer them. And they charge for that service.”

What’s happened to the telephone operator?

Since deregulation, former partners in directory assistance have become competitors who don’t share their latest telephone directories and who wage not-so-subtle turf wars.

Experts say it will only get worse.

Traditionally, it never was an AT&T; operator who answered requests for phone numbers, but an operator at a local Baby Bell, like US West, which contracted with AT&T; to provide that service.

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, AT&T;, the dominant provider of long-distance directory assistance, has replaced those contracts with a cheaper subcontractor, Excell Agent Services, and two of its own regional centers.

Inquiries from the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area are answered by Excell operators.

The company, which pays employees half the hourly rate of local union operators, now handles nearly a quarter of the country’s 1.5 billion assistance calls, according to Forbes.

But, because other phone companies don’t share their updated phone number data bases, Excell and AT&T; rely on data bases culled from published telephone books and that service.”

What’s happened to the telephone operator?

Since deregulation, former partners in directory assistance have become competitors who don’t share their latest telephone directories and who wage not-so-subtle turf wars.

Experts say it will only get worse.

Traditionally, it never was an AT&T; operator who answered requests for phone numbers, but an operator at a local Baby Bell, like US West, which contracted with AT&T; to provide that service.

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, AT&T;, the dominant provider of long-distance directory assistance, has replaced those contracts with a cheaper subcontractor, Excell Agent Services, and two of its own regional centers.

Inquiries from the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area are answered by Excell operators.

The company, which pays employees half the hourly rate of local union operators, now handles nearly a quarter of the country’s 1.5 billion assistance calls, according to Forbes.

But, because other phone companies don’t share their updated phone number data bases, Excell and AT&T; rely on data bases culled from published telephone books and such sources as credit card applications, utility bills and mortgage records.

Coeur d’Alene callers using AT&T; long-distance assistance speak to an Excell operator in Phoenix.

Spokane callers get operators in Rockledge, Fla.

Which may explain why a recent Spokane caller seeking the city of Coeur d’Alene’s planning department number was told: “There is no Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.”

“We know it’s unpleasant and customers are disappointed and frustrated,” said AT&T; spokeswoman Pat Mallon.

But she said AT&T;’s relationship with Excell is “sound” and both are working on training operators on geography, spelling and local pronunciations within area codes.

They’re trying to improve the system based on key letters that can deliver such wild misses as a request for the Society of Jesus in Portland (the Jesuits) that delivers the number of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons.)

The biggest problem, though, is the data base.

AT&T; officials claim that under deregulation, local companies were to provide their directories to long-distance companies and other telecommunication firms.

“AT&T; banked on it,” Mallon said. “We expected it to happen and it didn’t.”

Instead, the local companies or Baby Bells either refused to turn over their updated information or offered it at a price AT&T; refuses to pay.

US West has sold its directories with daily updates for years, said spokeswoman Dana Smith. But the company has not yet reached an agreement with AT&T; and the directory issue is only a minor part of a complex agreement pending between the two. The companies are at least in negotiations.

Not so in Idaho where GTE has no agreement with AT&T;, nor is AT&T; pursuing one. In other areas of the country, agreements are being signed on a state-by-state basis.

Joe Kraemer, a national telecommunications consultant based in Virginia, predicts it will take three years and a change in public policy by the Federal Communication Commission and state regulatory commissions to force competing providers to cooperate.

Until then, the most accurate numbers, new numbers or changed numbers will not be shared.

Telephone customers on both ends of the line feel disconnected.

Jennifer Henry represents a fresh pasta company, The Pasta Shop, in Spokane. She called AT&T; directory assistance for Capers Mediterranean Market and Bistro recently, a 6-month-old business in Coeur d’Alene. She got Capers - in Boise. She called again, Boise again. Two other operators told her such a restaurant didn’t exist.

The cost of each directory assistance call: 95 cents.

She finally found the restaurant’s number through a third party.

So many potential customers call the Coeur d’Capers’ established neighbors - a health food store and furniture store - for the restaurant’s number that owner Steve Nergord took his neighbors a free lunch. He also makes sure every customer leaves with a business card.

“It’s really frustrating,” he said. “The hardest part is you don’t know where to call to fix it. This should be a simple solution.”

Judge Hagen’s staff has worked on the issue more than a year, documenting erroneous calls and filing paperwork. They still get out-of-state bankruptcy calls.

Mallon, the AT&T; spokeswoman, said customers can call 1-800-222-0300 to “scrub” bad numbers. People who get bad listings should hang up and hit 00 to get a voice response system for credit for the missed call.

MCI and Sprint still buy directory assistance from local telephone companies, which callers can use by calling 10333 for Sprint and 10222 for MCI, then dialing 1-area code-555-1212. Cost is $1.10 per call.

US West has recently begun offering some customers national directory assistance for 85 cents a call. Callers in Western Washington can dial 1- their local area code-555-1212 and get a number from anywhere in the country.

The service is expected to be available in Spokane by mid-September.

“While other directory assistance providers have had problems with accuracy, US West has had a long history of providing reliable directory information,” US West vice president Frank Bowman said in a statement.

US West promises accuracy by using its own data bases in 14 states and offering a separate center for customers’ questions.

AT&T;’s Mallon predicts that “US West will run into the same problem outside their territory.”

Kraemer said local companies now have the most complete records, but even that will change as local competition increases. Someday, the company on the line locally may not be the company of record. And no one is yet talking about the increasing number of people who use wireless equipment, bypassing traditional phone lines and numbers.

Public utility commission staffs in Idaho and Washington say customers should brace themselves.

“This whole deregulation era will be a learning process not only for providers but consumers, and directory assistance is only part of a very large learning curve for all of us,” said Idaho spokesman David Scott.

At least one phone company official confessed the easiest way to a correct telephone number: “The Internet.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

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