EDITORIALS

It may be time to create a 411 for cell phones

Posted May 08, 2011, at 6:22 p.m.

Ask users what the drawbacks of cell phones are, and they’re likely to cite the poor sound quality, the occasional dropped call and that the phones tether one to work, friends and family even when users want space. But a little-discussed shortcoming is that there is no national directory assistance for cell phone numbers.

In 2004, a group of cell phone service providers was ready to create the directory assistance, envisioning a system in which a caller dialed 411 or 555-1212 and asked for the cell phone number of someone by name. But getting the names of cell phone users matched to numbers was not as easy as it might seem.

Amy Storey of the industry trade association CTIA-The Wireless Association said that analysis of the issue showed that many cell phones were issued to businesses, and the individual user names were not readily available to the service provider. Also, many customers are on family plans with one name on the bill — so the names of children and spouses would not be available to include in a directory.

Yet cell phone numbers of some people can be found. Ms. Storey notes that when people post their cell numbers when they order products or enter contests online or post them on social networking sites, the numbers are available through some avenues.

The question remains, though: Is there a need for a 411-type directory assistance for cell phones? Considering that more and more people — particularly those under the age of 30 — are dropping their land lines or not getting them when they rent or buy homes, the cell phone is the primary way to contact many people.

If the neighbor’s dog gets loose and you corral it, how do you contact the neighbor if you don’t know his cell phone number? If you want to contact people you know around town about a local election, how do you reach those with cell phones? What about a former co-worker you want to console when you read that her mother died?

The Federal Trade Commission could require cell phone carriers to ask customers whether they would participate by providing their name and number. The system would have to be “opt in”; that is, customers would have to act to be included. And a “do not call” process to ban telemarketers would have to be created alongside the new directory.

A member of Congress looking to make a name for him or herself could sponsor legislation launching this service. If cell phones have enabled us to keep in touch when we’re out of the house or office, why not further their networking potential by creating a 411 service?

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