Directory assistance

Author: Anagha Ravi

What is directory assistance?

Directory assistance is a service that helps people access caller information via a list or database of phone numbers or other contact information. 

The history of directory assistance

Historically, phone calls were made via systems that included panel or switching equipment. That means when a caller picked up a phone and attempted to make a call, they were first connected with an operator. The caller told the operator what number they needed, and the operator used a switchboard to connect the caller to the appropriate line.

If the caller didn’t know the number, the operator might be able to help them connect with other information, such as a person’s name and location.

As early as the 1930s, a caller could dial 4-1-1 to reach an operator in certain cities. In other areas, people dialed different combinations of numbers for this purpose, including 1-1-3.

Over time, as the phone networks grew and became more complex, the system for numbering evolved. Today telephone numbering plans follow a complex set of rules to ensure each geographic area has an associated prefix area code and that people and businesses within those areas have unique phone numbers.

Phone numbers starting with 1-1 had been historically reserved for what is known as vertical service codes. When a user dials 1-1 followed by other numbers it clues the phone in that the caller wants to take a certain action. In North America, for example, 1160 is a call blocking vertical service code.

Because of this, the 1-1-3 directory assistance number has largely been converted to 4-1-1 in most areas of America.

Who uses directory assistance?

With the decline in printed phone books, and with so many people and businesses moving to cell phones as the main method of communication, directory assistance helps provide a means of finding information about phone numbers.

People might use 4-1-1 for a number of reasons:

  • Someone is driving or is otherwise unable to access a computer or type on a mobile screen. They might call 4-1-1 using hands-free dialing as a safe way to connect with another business or person.
  • A person wants to connect with a business and knows the city where it’s located but does not know or have access to their phone number.
  • A business needs to contact a customer, but the phone number previously listed is no longer active and has not been ported.

How does directory assistance work?

The exact way directory assistance works depends on a caller’s phone carrier and region. Directory assistance is offered by various phone carriers and cellular service providers, and depending on their contract and service, it might come with a fee.

For those with access to directory assistance via their carrier, they may simply dial 4-1-1 to connect to it. Often the system users reach is an automated directory assistance setup, meaning that the caller will not actually speak with a human operator. Automated directory assistance uses IVR (Interactive Voice Response) technology that handles the call and gets the caller the information they need using speech recognition and recorded speech in lieu of a live operator. Automated directory assistance will ask for the listing the caller wants to look up and provides the appropriate number and offers to connect the call once the data is retrieved. 

Does directory assistance cost money?

Depending on the phone service, users might pay a fee to use directory assistance. Both dialing 411 and 00, operator assistance, can cost money to the caller with rates varying based on carrier.

Types of directory assistance

  • Wireline telephone directory assistance. This is what a caller connects with when dialing 4-1-1 from their landline telephone. How a caller is charged for this service depends on their local and long distance service providers and whether they want to find a local or long distance number.
  • International directory assistance. a caller can dial 00 from their landline phone to get help finding international numbers. This is a service provided by AT&T.
  • Toll-free directory assistance. If a caller is specifically looking for help finding a toll-free number for a company or agency, a caller can attempt to use a toll-free directory assistance service. The fees for this service are paid by the companies holding the toll-free number. You have the option to defend your toll-free voice against major network outages completely hands-free with disaster recovery solutions like Call Assure™.

How is Bandwidth involved in directory assistance?

Because every provider of directory assistance maintains and must update its own database, incorrect or outdated information about phone numbers can be a frustrating result of using these systems. Bandwidth makes it easy for customers to add, change or delete entries in various directory assistance and white page databases via an API or web portal. Companies that use Bandwidth help ensure their contact information is correct, which makes it more likely customers can get in contact when needed. 

What are the benefits of directory assistance?

Bandwidth makes it easy to add, change, or delete entries through the use of our web portal, or API.

Additional resources