Callers to the conventional service, however, will still have to pay 35p plus VAT - which would pay for up to half an hour online with most Internet services, and allow you dozens of searches compared with the two permitted by Directory Inquiries operators.
Last year, the 192 line generated more than pounds 200m for BT from 660 million calls. By contrast, access to the Web page http://www.bt.com/phonenetuk/ carries no charge except for the phone call to your local Internet provider.
The new service allows you to search using terms as vague as the surname and county, and will then offer a list of matching names from the 30 million on BT's books.
BT launched the service without fanfare last week, adding it to its corporate website under a small menu called "Search", and not notifying the press. Nor does it plan to advertise the service.
"We were busy last week with our annual results," said a spokesman. "We did announce that we would do it several months ago. It's not really a rival to Directory Inquiries. It's an alternative way of getting the information."
Even without advertising, the site has been receiving about eight inquiries every second since its launch, said a spokeswoman.
But the provision of a service on the Internet may presage other, larger changes to BT's inquiries system, said Sally Bridge, national officer for the Communications Workers Union, whose members include the 6,000 inquiries operators.
"We can't tell yet if it will have a small or a significant impact on phone inquiries, but we are worried," she said. "We have lost thousands of jobs in that field in the past few years. We know that BT is testing equipment which would do automated voice recognition. We do have concerns about the impact on jobs."
Last year The Independent highlighted how BT had tried to shorten to 25 seconds the average time that Directory Inquiries spent answering a call: Ross Clark's attempts to find his own number were repeatedly rebuffed by an operator who demanded an address more comprehensive than "near Cambridge".
Yesterday The Independent used the Web page - and took 10 seconds to find 19 R Clarks in and around the city.Reuse content