Paying for what we get

It was information that really did seem to want to be free.

That suited me.

Logged on to a computer all day, I thought nothing of clicking my way to www.555-1212.com to find a writer's phone number or try a "reverse lookup," typing in the number of an incoming call I'd missed to see where it originated.

But last week the site asked me to register in order to gain access. One more password to learn. And it introduced a charge: $9.95 a month for "heavy users," defined as those who launch more than 30 searches a month. (Business lookups remain free.)

A baseball-loving colleague notes a similar development at MLB.com, where Major League games, once "webcast" gratis, now set a surfer back (you guessed it) $9.95 a month.

Call it fee creep.

It's not hard to understand. Ad revenue has failed to materialize for many dotcoms. The money stream needs feeding.

Nor are reasonable fees likely to be too hard to swallow for most consumers. Often a basic version or short-term trial is still free. May the sites with the best content - at the fairest prices - win.

Today's lead story is aimed at consumers who like to get their telephone lookups handled over the phone by a live operator or an automated service.

Times are tough for them. Some telephone-industry watchers have noted a steady rise in service snarls and in costs. That's a bad combination.

Consumers may see improved service thanks to a recent move by Washington to make local phone companies share their databases with directory-assistance firms.

Meantime, it makes sense to learn how to end run steep fees. Dial smart. Or use a phone book.

Reach us at work@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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