The nation's major long-distance phone companies -- American Telephone & Telegraph Co., MCI Communications Corp. and US Sprint -- will be offering lower phone rates all day today, part of the industry's annual Christmas present to consumers.
Rick Reser of AT&T said evening and night rates will be in effect all day today, making it possible to make a 20-minute call to virtually anywhere in the continental United States for less than $3. Evening and night rates are an average of 32 percent below regular daytime rates.
US Sprint and MCI Communications Corp. will be offering similarly discounted rates today, part of the companies' regular holiday calling schedule.
To make sure calls go through quickly, AT&T is suggesting that )) holiday calls be made between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., when calling volume tends to be lower.
During the morning and evening hours, the risk of running into busy circuits because of overloading is a little higher, Mr. Reser said.
For international callers, the news is mix of good and bad: Chances are you will be able to get through -- if you're persistent -- but discount rates don't apply.
"The best time to make an international call, really, is Christmas Eve," Mr. Reser said. "Otherwise, you're going to spend all day Christmas trying to get through."
One option for international callers is to place holiday calls Dec. 26, when it will still be Christmas Day in some parts of the world.
On the home front, US Sprint is offering a new conferencing service that allows anyone with a Sprint long-distance calling card to set up ahree-way conference call from any phone.
The service, dubbed Quick Conference, works like this: The caller dials the first party, puts him on hold by dialing the star sign and 12, then calls the third party and adds him by dialing the star sign and 13. The whole process takes about 30 seconds.
Sprint is waiving the regular 75-cent charge for setting up such calls until after New Year's. The only other charge is the cost of the two connecting calls, which are automatically charged to the caller's Sprint card.
All three companies are continuing to offer special services to troops stationed in the Middle East for Operation Desert Shield.
Sprint is offering unlimited free calling, and MCI is offering free calls (limited to 5 minutes each) for soldiers who want to call home. AT&T is continuing to offer a free fax service in the United States for anyone who wants to send a message to Desert Shield troops.
AT&T's fax service is offered through all of its phone-center stores, which are closed today. Messages that are sent tomorrow, however, will arrive in time for New Year's, Mr. Reser said.
AT&T also announced yesterday the introduction of a free High Seas Radiotelephone Service for U.S. sailors and Marines calling from ships in the Middle East. The service is being offered through New Year's Eve.
The service uses high-frequency radio signals to send callers' voices to a U.S.-based monitoring station, which in turn hands the signal to a domestic phone operator for completion in the United States.
The service is usually used to communicate with ships, aircraft and oil rigs.