With the new service, called TXT-411, short text messages, known as, replace the usual conversation people have with an operator to request a telephone number or street address, said Jeremy Pemble, AT&T Wireless spokesman.
"This is one of the biggest evolutions of directory assistance in recent history," Pemble said. "Not a lot usually happens."
U.S. telephone companies are desperate for new revenue sources because of ongoing grim economic conditions. Companies have been hunting for revenue in other areas, for instance.
AT&T Wireless said the service is inexpensive to implement and maintain. The company said it will not have to hire new operators for the service, and won't cut back on its regular 411 service. AT&T says it's the first to use SMS in directory assistance and expects other carriers to follow.
Pemble said TXT-411 saves callers more than half the price of dialing 411, which could be an incentive to use a cell phone's cramped keypad to enter names and navigate a menu of choices rather than dialing three numbers.
AT&T charges $1.25 to dial 411, and 50 cents to use TXT-411 for a phone number, or $1.10 for driving directions.
To get the TXT-411 directory assistance, the dialer first needs to activate the e-mail program, then dial the e-mail address for TXT-411, which is 2411. To request the telephone number, users would type in the first name, followed by last name, a dot and finally the city. So a request for John Smith living in Seattle would look like this: Smith John.Seattle.