Cell phone directories search for early adopters

Canada’s telecommunications industry insists users aren’t interested, but that’s not stopping an American firm from introducing an opt-in online directory of wireless phone numbers.

Wyty LLC, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., recently

launched what it is describing as a national (meaning U.S.) listing of cellular contact information available through a proprietary Web interface. The company has said the directory will also include voice-over-IP numbers, Web site addresses and physical addresses. Wyty said it hopes to deliver cell phone directory assistance through short message service, wireless application protocol and a live call centre.

Richard Abild, Wyty’s CEO, said the directory has been in the works for more than a year but recent developments in the United States have renewed interest in mobile directory assistance. About two months ago, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) in the United States promised a cellular directory service by the end of this year. This would not be a print publication, but a 411-style lookup that could potentially bring new revenues to the embattled telecom market. Several carriers immediately came on board but Verizon, a notable exception, abstained. The U.S. Congress has since tabled legislation to protect the privacy of consumers, including provisions that would ensure they aren’t punished for keeping their number private.

Abild said the CTIA’s decisions make the market ripe for an opt-in directory. Wyty, which hopes to attract at least five to 10 per cent of U.S. cell phone users, will be looking to expand across North America soon.

“”This is to kind of get our feet on the ground, but right away we’d like to get Canada and Mexico (included),”” he said. “”Canada is pretty easy, but the thing with Mexico and the Latin American countries is that we’re getting into Spanish.””

Canadian cell phone users can already list their mobile contact information in regular phone books, but usually for a fee. According to Marc Choma, a spokesman for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) that’s more than enough.

“”It is already illegal to publish someone’s wireless phone number unless you already have their express consent,”” he said. “”Anything the wireless carriers would do as a service for their customers would be as a result of what the customers are demanding, and so far we have had no such demand.””

A Bell Mobility spokeswoman said feedback from customers indicates they value privacy more than the convenience a mobile directory assistance service could provide. “”You could make some money off it, but you could also end up alienating customers,”” she said.

Wyty is not the only firm willing to take that risk. FlatWire Inc., 422.info and a number of other firms have already launched their own opt-in directories, which, like Wyty’s, ask users to become members. They then have control over what information gets published in the directory and can make changes depending on how they get contacted. Given their scope, these directories could have many entries for some names, but Abild said Wyty would include middle initials, place or birth or even educational history to speed searches. “”There are different little tweaks and angles we can put on there that can separate a Steve Johnson that’s been in there 20 times,”” he said.

Earlier this month, a research firm called the Pierz Group based in Clarkston, Mich., released a report which said mobile directory assistance could be worth US$2 billion in incremental revenue each for carriers by 2008.

This would be split up between wireless carriers, fixed-line carriers and directory assistance providers, but the money would come both from the cost of the services and the increased usage. Carriers typically calculate their success by gauging average revenue per user, or ARPU.

Despite their promise, managing partner Kathleen Pierz admitted it will take a while for consumers to warm up to such services. “”What stands in the way of a company like Wyty from being really successful is it is all opt-in,”” she said. “”Any time you have that, you to have to promote the daylights out of to the people who would want to opt in.””

Abild said Wyty target markets would be small businesses and young people. “”They’re growing up with these cell phones,”” he said. “”They’re coming out of high school or college and getting their first apartment, and they’re not getting a land line.””

Opt-in services have been tried in France, New Zealand and Australia, and have never gotten more than 10 per cent to opt in, Pierz said. Some of them, however, are taking novel approaches to privacy concerns. Some use pre-announcements, whereby a caller would state their name, and the intended recipient would get a message on their cell phone informing them their number has been requested through the directory assistance service. They would then have the option of taking the call. Another option would send an alert of an assistance request through e-mail or text message.

“”Both of those concepts tested exceptionally well,”” she said.

Choma was skeptical that Canadian firms would bite at the opportunity.

“”Private companies may have been looking at this as a business opportunity, but from the carriers or the government, I haven’t heard of any sort of push for that.””

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