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Verizon pulling plug on time, weather services

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 6:58 PM

Time has run out on time. The weather's not looking so hot, either.

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For more than 70 years, Washingtonians have been able to call the phone company and find out what time it is and what the weather will be like. But now when you call 844-1212 or 936-1212, you hear a recorded message announcing that on June 1, Verizon will pull the plug on its time and weather services.

Perhaps this is no reason to mourn. After all, the precise time is available on our cellphone screens. As for the forecast, there's "weather on the 8s," not to mention an entire cable channel devoted to rain, wind, sun and snow. Do we really need to employ a 19th-century technology - Alexander Graham Bell's telephone - to decide if we should wear a sweater or carry an umbrella?

Here's how Verizon spokeswoman Sandra Arnette put it in an e-mail to me: "Time and weather services are a remnant of another era - when sources for this information were very limited. That's no longer the case, as people can get time and weather information from radio, TV weather channels, online sites, wireless phones, PDAs and many landline phones."

That's why Verizon decided to discontinue the service.

Well what about that, Amanda Graver of Germantown?

"I'm so disappointed," said Amanda, who contacted me, frantic, upon hearing the news. "I'm about to turn 40, and I've been calling the weather line since I learned how to dial the phone."

Amanda has four boys, ages 4 to 12. "They know the number," she said. "They know to call to find out what to wear for school. I don't have to worry about turning on the computer for them or the TV. I love Neal Pizzano in the morning telling me it's National Blueberry Day or Celebrate Thumbs Day."

Ah, Neal Pizzano. If you are not a regular weather dialer, you may not be familiar with Neal and his humorous antics. He is the Justin Bieber of recorded weather, enormously popular and an object of affection among weather-callers male and female. The seven other meteorologists - including Rob Luchessi and the wonderfully named Howard Phoebus - have their fans, too. They're strangers to us, but somehow friends.

And these telephone weathermen are economical with their forecasts. They excel at packing a lot of information into a tiny temporal space. Contrast that with the weather segments on TV, all blather, rigmarole and double super-secret doppler radar.

Rockville's Julie Martin-Korb doesn't like the bright and blaring glow of the TV first thing in the morning. She calls 301-936-1212. "There's probably an app for that on people's iPhones," she said. "I don't have an iPhone."

Elliott Jaffa of Arlington knows that times have changed, but no modern medium can get him the weather quite as fast as 703-936-1212 on his speed dial. Elliott said: "I wake up, pick up the phone, push 'memory' and '9,' and within seconds, I hear the current temperature and windchill."

Telephone weather started in this area in 1939, when C&P Telephone operators would read a government forecast. When the phone company was broken up in the 1980s, there were fears the service would end. But Keith Allen, who runs a company called D.C. Weather Services, stepped in and took over the contract. He and his team have been providing it ever since. They're an endangered species. This is the last area where Verizon provides the weather forecast, although you can still get the time in Massachusetts. ("I'd like to see it continue," Keith said. He's hoping another company might pick up the forecasts.)

Verizon wouldn't tell me how much it costs to provide the service. Nor would the company tell me how many people call each day. A source told me that the day of Hurricane Isabel in 2003, more than a million calls came in, probably because so many homes were without power, rendering newfangled media - radio, TV, computer - useless.

Perhaps there will be a public outcry over the discontinuation. (You can e-mail Keith at verizonweatherofdc@verizon.net and call the phone company at 1-800-VERIZON.)

Or perhaps the service will just recede into memory, becoming subject matter for some future iPad columnist. Can you believe it, he'll write. People used to call on the phone to get the weather forecast. It was quick, it was simple and it was free. Isn't progress great?


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