Before long, according to the Wall Street Journal, Pacific Bell is going to start offering its customers vanity phone numbers, like vanity license plates.
This will be merely another of the numerous competitive gimmicks thought up by the several regional phone companies since Ma Bell was fragmented by the government in an act of dubious wisdom.
I suppose the theory is that competitive private enterprise is good for the country and the soul.
I have never understood why the phone company was broken up in the first place, and I have never known how to judge among the flood of alternative services offered us by the various new companies.
Recently we began to receive phone calls asking us whether we had chosen our long distance company, and whether it was AT&T.
Each time I got that call I said we had chosen AT&T and had already filled out our card and sent it in.
They always seemed happy about our choice, but evidently they had no way of communicating this choice to the other people who were making the same calls. We still hear from them about once a week, asking whether we have made a choice, and whether it is AT&T.
I don't recall that we have ever heard from any of the competitive services. Maybe they're having trouble with their long distance lines.
With vanity numbers the various phone companies hope to get more business and reduce their basic rates. Of course they are only for people who can afford to pay a little more--thus the term vanity.
The phone company doesn't like to use that word. They call them personalized phone numbers.
If you watch television, you know that we already have personalized business numbers. We are always being exhorted to call some number that begins with the area code and then has three digits and four letters that spell the name or characterize the business referred to--some word like HELP (for therapy), or TALK (a radio talk show), or WORD (a religious group).
I suppose there is some purpose in this. Such numbers theoretically are easy to remember, and should therefore increase the number of inquiries their sponsor receives. However, I imagine the number of available words that name or characterize businesses are limited.
They plan to charge $10 for personalized phone numbers, plus $1.50 a month, which isn't a lot.
The personalized number is seen as a blessing for single people, who can give it to people they hope to hear from, and since the number theoretically will be easier to remember, perhaps they will get more calls.
I can't believe, however, that personalized phone numbers will very much improve the chances of hearing from Mr. Wonderful or Ms. Ideal.
Why do I need a phone number that has three digits and ends in JACK? How many other Jacks are there? I might use a byline my editor gave me when I started out as a sports writer--JAX MYTH. But I never liked that name; it was one reason I quit the job.
Besides, the number of people whose calls I welcome at home is very limited. My family knows my number, my close friends know my number, and my employer knows my number. It has been unchanged for 36 years. I'm not sure that I care to extend the list of people who call me by passing out an easy-to-remember number.
Instead of giving us vanity phone numbers, why doesn't the phone company do something really useful for us?
Why don't they figure out a way to stop wrong numbers? I would say that two out of the three rings we get at home are wrong numbers. But I suspect we can send people to the stars before we can figure out how to prevent wrong numbers.
One improvement they are thinking about, for example, for people who don't mind paying for special services, is a phone capable of making a distinctive ring to indicate who's calling. I don't see how they can do that.
Also, according to the paper, some companies may soon be offering us "customer-originated tracing," which allows you to find out who made the last incoming call.
But if all you can find out is the number the call came from, it won't help you much, unless you know whose number that is. Of course, if the call was from a member of your family, or a close friend, or your employer, you will know the number, and you can call back.
Debra Smith, product manager for Pacific Bell, says the personalized number is "absolutely California."
A recent survey showed that the kinds of people who would go for personalized phone numbers "share acquisitive and expensive life styles, preferring fashionable dress and the latest gadgets, and most likely already own vanity license plates."
Well, there we are. Right out in front again. We gave them the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee and the hot tub, and now we're first with vanity phone numbers.
As the beer ad used to say, "It's Lucky when you live in California."
If your name happens to be Quentin or McQuade or Queenie, though, you're out of luck. There is no Q on the telephone dial--or whatever it is you call it when it isn't a dial but a panel of push buttons.
Maybe I'll try to get FIAT LUX. My wife tried to get it for me for my car, but it was already taken.
Let there be light.