Sun, Post bids to try 3-digit news lines denied

September 10, 1994|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Staff Writer

State regulators yesterday rejected requests by The Baltimore Sun Co. and the Washington Post Co. to set up trial information services using three-digit phone numbers.

Available three-digit dialing codes are so scarce, the Public Service Commission of Maryland ruled, that assigning the easily remembered "N11" numbers to The Sun and the Post would give them an unfair advantage over other companies that might set up competing services.

Like other publishing companies, The Sun and the Post are interested in selling information such as in-depth sports or stock results over the phone on a pay-per-call basis.

Currently most such services employ expensive long-distance lines using, say, "900" numbers. That often generates charges of several dollars a call.

The Sun and the Post had petitioned the PSC to order Bell Atlantic-Maryland Inc. to assign them dialing codes similar to the 411 directory assistance or 911 emergency service. The idea is that such numbers would generate local, less expensive toll calls. The Post, for example, said it intended to charge 50 cents or less per call of five minutes or less.

The publishing companies' toll-call services would supplement the free information services they now provide via phone -- The Sun's SunDial service, for example.

But O. Ray Bourland III, PSC chief hearing examiner, said that there aren't enough three-digit codes available to start handing them out to first comers -- even on a trial basis. The only available numbers are 211, 311, 511 and 711.

"The limited code availability makes it preferable to hold the codes open for noncommercial public uses and to find another low-cost access method" for commercial users, Mr. Bourland wrote.

There is no other, similar, low-cost pipeline now available. Plenty of seven-digit numbers are unused, but they're harder for customers to remember, and regular seven-digit codes aren't available for pay-per-call service now.

Phone companies say they are working on alternatives but that as of yet they are not available.

Officials representing The Baltimore Sun Co., the Post and Bell Atlantic declined to comment yesterday, saying they needed to study the ruling first.

Bell Atlantic itself also is interested in selling information and entertainment over its lines. The company, which opposed The Sun's and the Post's N11 proposals, will test an N11 service of its own in New Jersey this year, using newspapers and other outside vendors.

The PSC's Office of People's Counsel, which represents the public interest, also opposed the application. The PSC staff supported it.

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