Back in the old days -- before 1988 -- big companies had all the advantages state-of-the-art telecommunications could offer: preferred rates on long-distance telephone bills, toll-free numbers, expensive telex lines and facsimile equipment and the staff to operate them, sophisticated computer networking facilities, and more.
Today, big business uses these valuable tools more enthusiastically than ever. But they're not alone.
Small and midsized companies represent the largest, fastest-growing commercial telecommunications market segment, according to industry experts. And an explosion of telecommunications packages has put long-distance services, toll-free numbers, electronic mail, faxing equipment and services within reach, technologically and economically, for companies of any size.
So numerous are the options, in fact, that the Telecommunications Research and Action Center in Washington publishes TRAC Tele-Tips, a newsletter that compares long-distance packages that can save 20 percent or more over standard rates for companies that spend $150 to $6,200 a month on such calls.
To compare plans, a company should determine how much time and money it spends on monthly long-distance calls. Before choosing a long-distance company, business owners also should consider the sound quality of the long-distance company's lines, how often circuits are busy, and how attentive the company is to business needs.
According to TRAC Tele-Tips, these new long-distance plans are called virtual WATS plans although they differ in key ways from traditional wide-area telecommunications service. Regular WATS lines require special installation, monthly line charges, and can be used only from specific lines.
Of the plans offered by AT&T, MCI, US Sprint and others, none requires special installation or dedicated lines, and are available as standard "dial 1" plans that can be used on any line. For many virtual WATS plans, calls are billed at six-second increments rather than rounded up to the next full minute. Companies whose calls generally are less than four to six minutes should consider a plan with six-second billing.
"Since start-up costs generally are low and there are no termination costs, even for virtual WATS plans," the newsletter advises, "it's easy to switch carriers."
The packages available to small businesses are as diverse as they are plentiful. US Sprint's Small Business Advantage offers services that include virtual WATS, toll-free number fax and phone services, fax, phone conferencing and billing options.
AT&T offers toll-free numbers, virtual WATS, a portable phone-fax, a cordless phone for small businesses -- even an 800 number translation service called the Language Line that offers telephone-based interpretation services in most languages. In June, Washington-based MCI Communications Corp. unveiled its own long-distance service, aimed at an $18 billion business market.
Here is a compilation of some available telecommunications products and services:
For companies that spend less than $100 a month on interstate long-distance calls, the Baltimore-Washington area's US Sprint (a unit of Kansas City, Mo.-based United Telecommunications Inc.) offers reduced rates through SprintPlus, whose users can qualify for discounts that accrue by combining Sprint Foncard calls, international calls and faxes.
Those that spend more than $100 a month can use Sprint's Dial 1 WATS, which is billed in six-second increments, uses existing phones and lines, and requires no installation fees or monthly service charges. Dial 1 WATS gives free call detail reports with the date, time, telephone number, duration and cost of each call.
Sprint's FonConference allows small companies to hold telephone conferences 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even if their phones have no conference feature. Sprint notifies conference participants, makes all arrangements, and records the conference if the company requests it.
Sprint's FonVIEW call-management software allows small companies to track and analyze monthly telephone use patterns on a personal computer. In a graphics format, FonVIEW identifies which clients are being called or are calling, how often and for how long.
MCI has targeted the small-business niche for telecommunications services. MCI Vision offers small and midsized businesses new telecommunications services, billing and management help, and volume discounts based on combined long distance use for the entire company at prices based on a per-minute rate.
The package, intended for companies that spend $500 to $50,000 monthly on long distance, offers customers a single invoice and reporting package detailing long-distance calls and charges for outbound and credit-card calls, and domestic and international calls for all company locations. Calls are identified by codes assigned to employees, departments or calling cards.