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(Almost) free 411 on cell phones

Customers will just have to pay their carriers a few pennies for each text-message directory-assistance query.

Name, address and a free phone call? Dialing 411 may never be the same again.

Beginning sometime Friday or Monday, San Francisco-based upstart UpSnap says, it will launch a 411 service for cell phones that costs a few pennies per inquiry (paid to one's wireless carrier) and will make it possible to call, for free, some of those businesses whose listings you've requested.


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Rather than talk to an operator, users of UpSnap's Merchant Call Back service will be able to send text messages from their cell phones with the specifics of their search, and will be messaged back with the usual full names, addresses and telephone numbers. Embedded in each text message is a link, which when selected triggers the free call feature. It's actually two phone calls, both made by UpSnap. The first is to the person or business listed, the second to the inquirer's cell phone. A virtual bridge connects the two calls.

Not every listing will have the call back feature. Rather, merchants sponsor the call-back links, which helps pay for the free phone calls and keeps the text-message 411 service free. "There's no limit to how long you can talk, but we'll be monitoring it," said UpSnap Chief Executive Tony Philipp. The only cost is the charge that wireless carriers make for sending text messages--usually just a few cents per message.

Anyone with a phone that supports short message service will be able to use Merchant Call Back, but before doing so, a user must go to UpSnap's Web site to register and enter his or her 10-digit cell phone number, the company says. After a user registers, UpSnap will send that person a text message with the address he or she will use for 411 requests.

The call back service, a first, according to Phillipp, is being shopped around now by UpSnap partner LookSmart, the Web search company.

This new twist on 411 information services is made possible courtesy of the collision between cell phone text messaging and Internet telephony.

Operators of yellow- and white-page databases are increasingly opening up to inquiries via text messages, which Americans are beginning to warm up to after years of apathy, mainly because of the low cost of sending messages, and because the messages are usually free to receive. The two calls UpSnap makes use the Internet, a much cheaper alternative than the heavily taxed and regulated traditional phone networks.

In the hands of the unscrupulous, such a system could be a telemarketer's dream. But according to Phillipp, the users' cell phone numbers, which must be provided in order to take part, are locked away in a database under UpSnap's control. Also, the system requires the user's permission before launching the free calling feature.

UpSnap's new offering is similar to what's now available from search giants Google and Yahoo, but those two companies don't offer the Merchant Call Back feature, so it might draw a competitive response, Phillipp suggested.

Representatives from Google and Yahoo could not immediately be reached Friday for comment.

In late October, Yahoo added a search feature for cell phones using text messaging, just a few weeks after rival Google launched one of its own. Yahoo's new mobile service offers localized search results, maps and Web site icons that let people point, click and make calls.