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Getting phone service for our summer house (see here and here) reminded me of how broken the directory assistance and white pages model is now that the world has gone online and cellular and is going VoIP (despite some nasty bumps in the road).  Fixing broken stuff is a great way to start a business. Mary and I are through doing that so you’re welcome to pick up on the opportunity – in fact, I hope you will.

If you get your phone service from THE PHONE COMPANY – Verizon in our case, you have to pay $2.35/month NOT to have your number listed in the phone book!  It’ll cost you $4.20 if you also DON’T want to be listed with directory assistance. This is probably an opportunity for a lawyer more than for a businessman. Gotta be someway to overturn whatever ancient Public Service Board ruling authorized this particular form of identity blackmail.

But, if your phone number is attached to a wireless or a VoIP phone, it doesn’t usually get listed at all.  Most people don’t want their wireless phones listed so this is fine for them but others use these phones for business or have no other phone so really would like a listing. Here’s Vonage’s explanation of when you will or won’t be listed if you order service from them:

“If you have received a new phone number from Vonage, you will not be listed in a telephone directory unless you contact your phone book publisher and request to be listed.

“If you are transferring your number to Vonage and you were previously listed in your local telephone directory's white pages, by checking the two boxes on the
Number Transfer Authorization  form, you will remain listed in the white pages of the directory. Otherwise, you won't be listed.

“You will not be listed in the 411 directory unless you contact your phone book publisher.”

Note that switching to VoIP is a good way to get rid of your directory listing without paying a fee.  But it sounds from this like you can keep only your directory and NOT your 411 listing; I’m not sure, however, that’s the way it really works.

If you’re getting a new number from Vonage and want it listed, you are supposed to call your “phone book publisher”. In my case that’s Verizon.  I looked in the phone book and it said to call my service rep for “omissions” so I called. Had a nice chat with a robot and eventually got to a person who insisted that Vonage would have to list me and then I’d get in the directory. You’ve already seen what Vonage says above. In programming we call this an infinite loop.

Here’s where the business opportunity comes in. Why, now that we have an Internet, do we need a “directory publisher” who has any authority to decide whether to list us or not and what number to list for us? What we need is someplace online where we can create our own listings (or not) and which is accessible by phone or Internet for getting listing information – wiki411.com! Of course cellphone numbers, email addresses and even snail mail addresses as well as IM, Skype, and other contact info could be included in the listings.

Like all network businesses, it’s easy to see how this would be successful if it were already in place and populated. The trouble is getting started. There’s no value in being listed at wiki411.com if no one is looking there for listings. There won’t be anyone looking at wiki411.com for listings until it’s well-populated so that there is a good chance of finding someone.

Fortunately, there’s an easy solution if you’ve got the capital to get started. Wiki411.com should start by buying the best set of current listings (these are available commercially) and making these available free. Then the service needs to buy lots of CPC and banner ads making clear that this service has every number every other service has PLUS the self-listed numbers and addresses. Initially advertising on the site should be heavily filled with promotions to get inquirers to list their own contact info – perhaps even lottery-type prizes with everyone who registers eligible.

There needs to be an authentication method for listings but that’s not rocket science.

How to make money at this is also not difficult to imagine. Charging for lookups is NOT the answer, however.

Hope someone is already secretly doing this; maybe it’s in private beta and I just don’t know.

BTW, I own the wiki411 set of URLs. Don’t usually buy and warehouse domain names but I know this is something that’s gotta happen.


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Laura Bianchi

I am a freelance writer for Crain's Chicago Business. Could you (Tom Evslin) call me ASAP. I want to ask you a couple questions about your blog.

(847) 359-5947
Laura Bianchi
Freelance Writing Services


It seems like this could be incorporated into 800-GOOG-411 that Joseph pointed out. Google almost certainly could do this. The problem with this is making sure telemarketers don't get access to these lists in bulk.

Joseph Thibault

Excellent, I think you are exactly on point by suggesting an open source phone book system. However, I disagree with your comment that the system should first purchase the best directories out there. This information (especially information about cellphone numbers) is already volunteered (and publicized!) again and again by millions of users.

Where you ask?

Millions of users every day are already logging onto social networks to search their friends who post cellular and other contact information. Anchoring a WIKI411.com system on an old system (phone books) seems like an old school solution when these numbers are listed in the millions already online. Someone just needs to write a Facebook or MySpace application (or begin a new social-style network) that users can opt into in order to start propagating the global web pages.

By the way, if you're ever looking for a restaurant and don't have the internet handy, you can call 800-GOOG-411 for free, their directory assistance is AWESOME.


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Jim Price



Tom, your phone saga is fascinating. I have to say though that I doubt that I pick up a phone book more than twice a year, and call 411 not many more times - usually in the car.

If I want a phone number I almost always Google the company in question.

Which is why I wind up not doing business with those bizarre outfits that refuse to put contact information on their web sites.

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