It was a telephone junkie's dream: For an additional 30 cents, people calling 411 could punch a single digit and be instantaneously connected to the number they wanted to reach.
But no more. On Sept. 13, Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.'s "Direct Connect" service was quietly
folded in most major markets, a victim of a technological snafu that wouldn't go away and a business community that apparently wasn't too thrilled with the cost of all that extra dialing convenience.
With Direct Connect, a customer calls directory assistance at 411 and asks for a phone number. After it is given, a recording says that if the caller pushes a button, the number will be dialed for him automatically -- for a 30-cent charge.
The problem was that the service was just too easy to use: People calling 411 from some hospitals, hotels and other businesses could punch in Direct Connect all day long -- without paying for it. The host establishment was stuck for the bill.
Al Burman, a C&P spokesman in Baltimore, said that C&P has gone back to the drawing board to try to fix the problem.
One option would be to let businesses block access to the service, he said. "We're looking to see if it's technically possible to do that."
Until the problem is resolved, the service will not be reintroduced in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs where there is a large concentration of business customers.
The service continues to be offered in some secondary markets, such as Lexington Park, Ellicott City, Damascus and Oxon Hill.
Mr. Burman said C&P became aware of the problem after a C&P employee visiting Baltimore called 411 from his hotel room and heard the recorded pitch for Direct Connect. That sent up a red flag to the employee, who alerted the company.
The reason: Under its tariff, C&P wasn't supposed to be making Direct Connect available to certain business accounts, including hotels.
"In essence, we should not have been providing the service" to the hotel, Mr. Burman said.
He said that a few businesses contacted C&P to express "some concern" about Direct Connect shortly after its debut. But he said none openly complained about the service.
A Public Service Commission spokesman said that the commission has received only a few written complaints about the service.