Changin' Times - and Lines

Ever since AT&T created the first toll-free numbers more than 30 years ago, Americans have had the convenience of dialing 1-800-555-1212 to find the toll-free number of a business or organization.

But now those toll-free directory assistance lines appear to be coming down. Next spring AT&T plans to phase out the service, moving listings for 750,000 toll-free numbers to its Web site instead.

The shift will displace 900 operators in four states. It will also put customers without computers at a disadvantage, making it harder for them to contact businesses via toll-free lines. AT&T expects many local phone companies to include toll-free numbers in their databases. But like other directory-assistance calls, such requests will no longer be free.

Eras end with great regularity these days, so perhaps the end of the era of toll-free directory assistance for 800 numbers should come as no surprise. As AT&T's spokesman explains, the company's goal is to rely less on "voice-based" technology and more on the Internet. He adds, "What telephone poles were to our past, Internet protocols will be to our future."

That may signal progress. But it also represents another erosion of personal service and another widening of the gap between computer haves and computer have-nots.

Even sophisticated customers with easy access to the Web may one day feel a twinge of nostalgia for the voices of real live operators at the other end of the directory-assistance line.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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