Is it the end of Verizon's printed phone books? Google and mobile phones threaten yellow pages

Archived Verizon phone books at the Free Library's Central Branch. Verizon wants to cease blanket deliveries of printed directories.

Verizon's white-pages residential phone books have lost mass appeal. Now, even the popular ad-supported yellow pages of business phone listings could soon disappear from many homes.

The telecom giant says that less than 1 percent of its legacy phone customers in Pennsylvania have requested the white-pages residential directories — sacred household references for decades — only five years after it halted saturation delivery of those printed tomes.

With the rapid fall-off in usage, Verizon Communications Inc. has told Pennsylvania regulators that it plans to cease blanket deliveries of "all printed directories," including business yellow pages and consumer guides, to transition to digital directories — though Verizon spokesman Michael Murphy said last week it hasn't publicly disclosed a timetable for the shift and Pennsylvania regulators haven't approved it.

Mike Konidaris, director of telco relations and printing at Dex Media, which publishes phone directories under contract for Verizon, said Friday: "We don't want the books to go away. There is still a use for them, and it's still a very good advertising avenue for small businesses."

But it also doesn't make sense to deliver printed yellow pages to all households, Konidaris said: "We want the flexibility to decide where they should be distributed."

The companies —Verizon and Dex Media — are pursuing a similar strategy in New Jersey. 

In December, that state's Board of Public Utilities approved targeted distribution of 32 Verizon yellow- and white-pages business directories, including those in Verizon's areas in South Jersey. White-pages residential phone books have been available only upon request for several years in New Jersey.

Trends are clearly against printed directories. Not only do Americans now live in a digital world, but the proliferation of cable-based phone services and wireless carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and others — since the deregulation of the telecom industry in 1996 have marginalized residential phone books.

Neither wireless carriers nor cable-based phone companies such as Comcast Xfinity Voice are required to make customer phone numbers available for published directories. In fact, Verizon estimates that today only 20 percent of the residential phone numbers in its regulated phone areas in Pennsylvania can be found in published directories. 

The upshot: The Michigan-based Local Search Association, a trade group, found that nationally only 6 percent of phone users utilized published white pages as their chief source of information in 2014.

"If people don't use it, there's no use in getting it," Wesley Young, vice president of public affairs for the Local Search Association, said of the white-pages residential directories that have been the first to go. "The problem with having a phone directory now is that you have so many different providers."

Still, many dialers today also can't find important numbers for friends, neighbors, or family members because so many people connect to the outside world through mobile phones. There is no official local or national directory of mobile phone numbers.

Wayne Doolittle, owner of the National Cellular Directory, a private company in Minneapolis that specializes in providing mobile phone numbers for a fee, said there was a "huge need for people to find cellphone numbers. There should be a way for people to do it. But people should also have the option to opt out" of listing their mobile number — similar to unpublished phone numbers in the white pages.

National Cellular Directory contains millions of mobile numbers gleaned from data sources including public records, Doolittle said. The company offers a steeply discounted trial service for 99 cents. Other options include $9.99 for one successful search and $19.99 a month for 20 searches.

Verizon's Murphy said last week that "the public doesn't want a wireless directory, and neither does Verizon."  The company has "fought since at least 2004 to protect the privacy of our customers' mobile numbers against publishing — opposing the concept of a wireless directory from the jump even when other carriers in the industry supported the idea early on."

As for legacy landline phone numbers, sources for that information today include the toll-free 1-800-FREE-411 (1-800-373-3411). Callers listen to an advertisement before the number request.

Wire-line customers of Verizon can look up numbers on the internet at www.verizon.com/whitepages or request a free directory from Dex Media by calling 1-800-888-8448, Murphy said. Verizon also provides directory assistance for $2.49 to $2.79 per call. Another legacy phone carrier, CenturyLink, charges $3.99 for directory assistance.

Verizon disclosed the status of its residential phone directories and indicated its plans for published phone directories in a filing with Pennsylvania regulators. The Verizon filing, initially made in September 2016, supported the phone carrier CenturyLink, which was seeking to discontinue saturation delivery of phone directories in Slippery Rock, Mount Joy, Gettysburg, and other smaller phone markets. Verizon was granted a similar petition related to residential phone books back in 2010.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission approved Century Link's request earlier this month, though the actual order has yet to be published.

Google dominates the internet search for business listings. But many people still find local plumbers, painters, or other small businesses through printed yellow-pages directories, said Young, of the Local Search Association.

It seems inevitable, though, that more of those people will use the internet. And Young's organization reflects the shift: The Local Search Association used to be called Yellow Pages Integrated Media Association.