Go ahead--pick up the phone and try dialing U S West's directory assistance (1-411) from a cellular phone, pay phone or your own run-of-the-mill residential phone. After you ask for a phone number, the operator will dump you and your call into a "voice response system." The system offers the option of a) hearing the number you've requested, or b) being connected directly with that number by pressing 1 on your touch-tone phone.
It's called "Connect-A-Call," and it costs 35 cents in addition to the 60 cents normally charged for directory assistance. (The 60-cent fee is waived at pay phones and on your first two calls each month from other phones.)
U S West is also offering an option to businesses: The business can pick up the 35-cent charge for the connection--and, possibly, kudos from the customer; a recording will inform the caller of the favor.
Bell Atlantic, which offers cellular-phone service in Arizona, has offered a feature called "Direct Connect" to its mobile-phone customers for the last year. For a flat rate of 75 cents a call, the caller can get as many phone numbers as he wants and can then get connected to one of those numbers. But "Connect-A-Call," which became available in late August, is the first such service in Arizona that is available to all phone users. Now, the discerning caller may wonder what is really gained in exchange for a quarter and dime. "For a lot of people, for 35 cents more, it's worth it just to not have to write it down," says Tony Seese-Bieda, head of public relations for U S West in Arizona. Certainly, the option comes in handy for the car-phoner. One reporter was so flustered when she heard U S West's new option for the first time that she actually pressed 1 on her touch-tone phone, and was immediately transferred to the number she'd requested. To her chagrin, she hung up, realizing that she never had gotten that phone number and would have to call directory assistance again.
The discerning caller will soon learn that it is possible to get the number and be automatically connected by pausing a few seconds before pressing 1. This gives the "voice response system" the chance to recite the number, after which the caller can be automatically connected.
But for a total of 95 cents (or 13.6 cents per precious digit for local calls)? It's certainly adding up for modern-day Ma Bells. According to Seese-Bieda, 10 percent to 20 percent of callers using directory assistance take the Connect-A-Call option.
Seese-Bieda estimates that the daily average of directory-assistance calls for Phoenix and Tucson reaches into the thousands--perhaps beyond. "It's a big number," he laughs.
U S West could see a significant profit. "Connect-A-Call" doesn't take up any more of an operator's time or cost than the basic directory assistance shtick. In fact, Seese-Bieda adds that the service may "decrease the amount of pressure on basic rates." That's phone company lingo for "It might keep rates from increasing so quickly.