And while several of the new companies offer to connect the caller with the number requested, the Times survey found that not one operator indicated that the connection charge could be up to 10 times the cost of a direct-dial call.
Cell-phone customers are especially hard hit. Those who want to find an international number will find seven companies from which to choose, with prices that can cost as much as $4.25.
Worse for everyone, though, is this: Dialing some of the companies won't even get you a British operator, much less someone for whom English is the first language. You might reach an operator at a relay station in South Africa, Malta, India or the Philippines, where such British household names as Woolworths, Charlton Athletic and RSPCA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) are lost on the listener.
But while BT may have lost its monopoly, it has acquired four new numbers and upped its own information charge 37 percent.
At least the British haven't yet added that annoying announcement we Americans get while we're on hold, waiting for a directory assistance operator: "This call may be monitored for quality assurance." If that were true, the U.S. telephone companies wouldn't have devised such a rotten, impersonal and expensive system in the first place.
The British are going to need more than a stiff upper lift to navigate their new information system.