Caller ID is victim of cost

Plugged In

July 13, 2006|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

Are you getting your money's worth from caller ID?

Some callers can't be identified because their information is blocked or unavailable, but in other cases the callers aren't named because the customer's phone company simply doesn't want to spend the money to obtain the data.

A small Boston Globe test of caller ID accuracy found several instances in which Verizon Communications and Comcast Corp. didn't provide a caller's name because they didn't want to pay the extra money.

The price is minimal on a per-call basis - often a penny or less a call - but spread across a telecommunications giant's many customers, it can quickly run into the tens of millions of dollars.

A spokesman for Verizon said the company provides excellent caller ID service, culling names from its own vast database and also spending tens of millions of dollars each year to access additional names from other telecommunications companies.

"We do not buy data from some smaller companies because the cost to do so doesn't justify the relatively little data that we don't already have," said Verizon spokesman Philip G. Santoro. "We're giving customers as much as anyone could give them without making it cost prohibitive for us."

Comcast spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman said the cable giant contracts with a national database company for its caller ID services. She said it was her understanding that the company buys name data from most telecommunications companies.

Caller ID is a hugely popular service, allowing consumers to see the name and number of who is calling so they can decide whether to take the call or return it later. It works by matching a number with a name. For a company such as Verizon, caller ID information is easy and inexpensive to retrieve in its own service area because the caller is probably one of the firm's own customers.

But identifying the name of someone calling from outside the company's service area requires the firm to purchase that information from the caller's phone company.

On its Web site, Verizon explains that the caller ID service will not always generate the name and number of the caller. When that happens, the Web site says, a message will be displayed explaining why.

The messages vary depending on the customer's display unit, but Verizon identified "out of area" or "unavailable" as messages that would pop up for calls made from outside "specially equipped areas" and calls made through an operator. The messages "private" or "anonymous" would appear for calls made by people who have blocked the display of their telephone information.

Industry officials says it's also difficult to identify the names of people making calls using operators, toll-free numbers, or from businesses with their own phone systems. Names are also not available for consumers with dial-around long-distance service or customers of telecommunications companies that don't store name data, including many wireless carriers.

M. Gregory Smith, chief executive of Accudata Technologies of Allen, Texas, a company that aggregates and sells data attached to phone numbers, said many telecommunications companies shortchange their caller ID customers by failing to purchase name data from smaller telecom companies. He said Verizon is one of the worst offenders.

"They don't want to pay the going price," Smith said.

Santoro of Verizon indicated Accudata charges too much for the name data it has for smaller telecom companies. "We don't think this guy's data is worth the money," Santoro said. He declined to further discuss the two companies' pricing.

Smith said his prices are more reasonable than Verizon's. He said Verizon charges 1.6 cents for each calling name Accudata purchases. But, he said, Accudata would be willing to charge Verizon half that. Smith said Accudata spends more than $1 million a year purchasing data from Verizon.

To test whether caller ID customers are getting their money's worth, the Globe arranged for five people to call numbers in Massachusetts belonging to a Verizon and a Comcast customer with caller ID. All of the calls came from out of state, one each from New York, Missouri, and Washington, and two from Texas.

The Verizon customer's caller ID was able to identify only the caller from New York, who presumably was in Verizon's database. For the other four calls, only the state the call was coming from was identified.

The Comcast caller ID correctly identified the callers from New York and Missouri and listed the other three as "unknown name."

Verizon and Comcast said they couldn't provide names for the two Texas numbers because they were in Accudata's database, and neither company purchases data from Accudata. Verizon didn't come up with the Missouri name because it doesn't purchase name data from Southwestern Bell Co., which is now part of AT&T. Comcast's caller ID provider did purchase the Southwestern Bell name and the Verizon name.

The fifth caller from Washington wasn't identified by either company, presumably because he is living in a furnished apartment where phone service is supplied by the landlord.

Santoro of Verizon said the Globe's small sample was not statistically valid, and added that Verizon would have done much better in a larger test involving name data from larger telecom companies.

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