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PacBell Seeks More Freedom on 411 Fees

September 13, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SBC Pacific Bell wants the freedom to make 411 service more expensive.

The company has asked the state Public Utilities Commission to remove most price controls on directory assistance, arguing that increased competition reduces the need for regulation. Under that proposal, the PUC could still set a maximum charge per call, but it would be unable to regulate any changes PacBell made below that level.

Consumer advocates criticized the proposal, saying callers have no reliable alternative for directory information. They also contend that directory assistance is a vital part of basic phone service, and they worry that PacBell might stop providing residential customers with three free 411 calls a month.

The company, a unit of San Antonio-based SBC Communications Corp., asked the PUC in 1998 to raise the directory assistance price to 50 cents from 25 cents and eliminate customers' allotment of five free calls a month.

Despite tens of thousands of protest letters and e-mails from customers, the PUC granted much of the request, raising the maximum rate to 46 cents a call and trimming the number of free calls to three.

Under PacBell's current proposal, the maximum would stay at 46 cents a call. But by moving to a new, less regulated approach, it would be easier for PacBell to make changes in the future.

PacBell is the state's largest provider of local phone service, and its customers are automatically routed to PacBell's directory service when they dial 411. Their main alternative is their long-distance carriers' directory services, which can be reached by dialing 00 or 555-1212 in a different area code.

Other competitors, PacBell spokesman John Britton said, are the free Internet sites that look up phone numbers. He said PacBell's share of the local directory assistance business is 44%, but consumer advocates described that figure as unrealistically low.

PacBell has not asked to increase the price of 411 calls or to reduce the number of free calls per month, Britton said, but it definitely wants the pricing flexibility its competitors have, including the ability to offer package deals without PUC approval.

WorldCom Inc. subsidiary MCI, Britton noted, charges some customers 99 cents for directory information but others pay $2.49.

"We'd like to be able to do the same thing," he said, adding: "Any pricing would have to be in line with the competitive market. We charge $10 a call for directory assistance [and] we wouldn't have any customers."

Regina Costa, telecommunications director of the Utility Reform Network in San Francisco, said the long-distance companies and Web sites are unreliable because their numbers aren't updated often enough. That's a problem, she said, for callers who need help finding numbers for new businesses or people who have moved.

Natalie Billingsley, a regulatory analyst for the PUC's Office of Ratepayer Advocates, said the proposed change would let PacBell raise 411 fees without the commission's review or approval and with no consumer protests allowed.

"It makes me very jittery to think of any aspect of basic, basic phone service being moved to a definition that does not allow commission pricing oversight," she said.

No decision is expected until next year at the earliest.

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