Access to information doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg.
Back when I was younger (we won't say how far back) telephone companies provided a free service for their customers in addition to their regular paid services. It was called "directory assistance" (or just "information") and could be reached by simply dialing "411" and waiting to be connected to a special operator. Yes, a real live person. Did I mention that this happened when I was younger?
Anyway, you'd tell this operator the name of the person, or company, you'd like to reach and she (most operators were female in those days) cheerfully looked up the number for you, and even placed the call right then and there, if you asked her to.
Did I mention that this wonderful service was free?
Well, as we all know, times change. What was once a free service now costs anywhere from a dollar on up, and if you want the operator (now a soul-less computer with zero cheerfulness) to place the call for you, it costs even more. I guess those cheerless computers cost more to feed than a cheerful human operator.
Now, I rarely begrudge any company if it wants to make a buck. Heck, that's part of what made America great. Free Enterprise. But... and this is where I have to draw the proverbial line... a distinction (and sometimes an exception) needs to be made between those who "use" a service, and those who "need" a service.
For the able-bodied, 411 is often a useful service, but rarely an essential one. For certain handicapped individuals, however, having access to directory assistance is not just useful, it is necessary. It's a tool that enables those individuals to lead better lives which are more independent, and more fulfilling.
It can also become quite expensive, if 411 is your primary connection tool with the rest of the world.
Ready for some good news? We don't need to start writing letters and calling senators to try and solve this problem for us. It's already been solved... by good old American Free Enterprise! Yay!
A company called Jingle Networks is making life a whole lot easier, and cheaper, with it's "free directory information" service. Simply dial "1-800-373-3411" (1-800-FREE-411) and a nifty automated voice recognition system asks you for a location (city and state), type of listing (business, government or residential), and name. Once the system has located an entry for the requested number, it reads the information aloud and offers the caller the option of connecting to the party by pressing a single number on his or her telephone keypad. It works equally well on cells as it does land line phones. It even works on SKYPE.
And yes, it's absolutely free to the caller. (NOTE: Cell phone users will incur normal charges associated with cell phone usage, like minutes charges. See your Plan for details.)
So how does Jingle manage to provide this service for free? In a word, advertising. Companies in your calling area have the option of advertising on FREE-411, and in exchange for your free use of their 411 system you may be required to sit through a short (usually 12 second or less) advertisement for goods or services related to your call, if applicable. For example, if you're calling a pet store, and a competing pet store has placed advertising with FREE-411, before your call is connected you'll hear a short advertisement for that store, and be given the option to connect to them instead, if you choose. If no competitor in your area is advertising, then you'll go straight to your party. It's really just that simple.
It works very well, by the way. I tried 10 local area calls and only got 3 advertisements. All of the calls reached my intended party. FREE-411 is in my speed dialer now.
I should also point out that Google has launched a similar service which can be reached by dialing "1-800-466-4411" (1-800-GOOG-411) and that it also works about equally well. So see? We do have options when it comes to information access, and this time, we all get to share in that equally.
Equality. Isn't that what it's really all about?