NEW YORK (AP) -- Verizon Communications and Qwest Communications are increasing the charge for long-distance directory assistance to as high as $1.25 per request, the latest in a series of price hikes by the nation's big local phone monopolies
The price hikes for dialing ''411'' or ''555-1212'' don't automatically apply to requests for local telephone numbers, where charges can vary sharply from state to state as set by local regulators.
Even at $1.25, the cost is well below the nearly $2 charged by AT&T, MCI and Sprint for requesting listings outside the local area code by dialing 555-1212 plus the desired area code.
The new rates at Verizon and Qwest are the highest among the local phone monopolies, which rule the directory assistance business by default.
Since alternative directory services like AT&T's are a fairly new concept, and many callers would rather not dial an area code for information, most people tend to dial 411 or 555-1212 to get information, connecting automatically with the local carrier.
Verizon plans to charge $1.25 for long-distance listings across its territory, which includes most of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, as well as smaller markets in 18 other states. The increase from 95 cents, implemented this month in New York and New Jersey, takes effect during June in Washington D.C., Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
Qwest, which in March increased its charge for both long-distance and local listings to $1.25 per query in Colorado, implemented the $1.25 fee in Wyoming and southern Idaho earlier this month and plans the same change next month in Washington. The previous fee was 85 cents in Colorado and 95 cents in the other three states. In North and South Dalota, Qwest's long-distance directory assistance charges were increased to 95 cents from 85 cents in March.
The latest round of price hikes began late last year at SBC Communications, which is now charging $1.10 for long-distance directory assistance in six states including California and Texas.
Verizon and Qwest argued that the price increases are reasonable when considering the hefty costs of providing live operator assistance and the hefty fees charged by AT&T, MCI and Sprint.
''We have 4,000 operators answering 4.5 million calls day,'' said Verizon spokesman Jim Smith, noting that operator assistance used to be heavily subsidized by the heftier fees that used to be charged for other services such as long-distance calling.
AT&T wouldn't say how many queries it gets for directory assistance through direct dialing for specific area codes or to its dial-around ''00'' service, which costs $1.49 per call.
With prices on the rise, a growing number of people are turning to the Internet, where they can look up listings for free at various Web sites, including infoUSA.com, 411.com, Switchboard.com, and AT&T's AnyWho.com.
But like other Web-based services that have ceased to be free with the financial collapse of the Internet economy, online providers of directory assistance may be feeling pressure to start charging for the service.
One Web site, www.555-1212.com, halted its free service just last week and began charging $9.95 for a bucket of 100 queries.
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