Are optional phone services worth the price? It's your call

May 26, 1991|By Leslie Cauley

If you bought every optional service that Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland sells -- about 20 at last count -- you'd probably be one of the most in-touch and accessible people on your block.

"Repeat Call," for example, automatically redials a busy number repeatedly, allowing customers to go about their business until the line is free. "Answer Call," C&P's version of the answering machine, records messages for you -- even when you're on the phone -- and "IdentaRing" lets you know if a ringing phone is for you or your teen.

That short list doesn't include the likes of call-forwarding, home intercom, Caller ID, speed calling, three-way calling and a dozen others, all of which are aimed at making the home telephone more useful for you -- and more profitable for C&P.

While all these bells and whistles may seem attractive at first glance, consumer experts advise caution before signing up. That's because adding on optional services, which cost $1.50 to $6.50 a month, can easily double or triple phone bills if you aren't careful.

"You have to be smart about pricing out services," said Janelle Cousino of the Maryland Action Coalition, a Baltimore-based consumer advocacy group. "Five bucks might not sound like much until you price it out over 12 months. It adds up."

For example, the basic Answer Call service, C&P's version of the answering machine, costs $5 a month for residential customers. That adds up to $60 over the course of a year, $120 over the course of two years and so on.

"The additional services are all quite expensive compared to what monthly phone service costs," said Ken McEldowney of Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based consumer advocacy group. "You must think carefully in terms of, is this a service you're going to use often enough to warrant paying extra every month?"

Granted, some of C&P's optional services offer features that can't be matched elsewhere.

The basic Answer Call service, for example, takes messages even when you're on the phone. And messages can only be retrieved by users who have the correct password, giving customers a degree of privacy not found in regular answering machines.

But unless those extra features are absolutely necessary, Ms. Cousino suggests taking a pass.

"Answer Call intrigues me, but it's 60 bucks a year," she said. "For $80, I can buy a machine for life."

Ms. Cousino said she also suggests taking a pass on services like speed-dialing, which is quickly becoming a standard feature on telephone sets today.

Speed calling, which costs $1.50 to $4 a month when purchased from C&P, allows you to program your phone so that you can hit a one- or two-digit code to dial a frequently called number.

According to Mr. McEldowney, consumers allow themselves to be swayed by slick advertising campaigns or fast-talking sales representatives.

"Of those who sign up for optional services, a large number of those don't even use them," he said.

Sometimes consumers get help in making the wrong decision when it comes to buying phone services, Mr. McEldowney said.

He noted that Bell of Pennsylvania, a C&P sister company that is also owned by Bell Atlantic Corp., agreed to pay $42 million last year to settle charges that it used deceptive techniques to sell optional services to customers.

The case stemmed from a lawsuit by the Pennsylvania attorney general and consumer advocate offices, which accused the phone company of selling services without explaining prices or informing customers that the services were optional.

A similar case involving a local phone company in California occurred in 1986. In that case, the company was ordered to refund $35.6 million to customers who were sold optional services they really didn't want.

That's not to say, however, that people don't want or need optional services.

Indeed, some optional services can be extremely useful in meeting a variety of special calling needs.

Even Mr. McEldowney said he likes call-waiting, which he describes as providing "a real service in the sense of knowing when another call is coming in."

Customers with the call-waiting service hear a beeping tone if they're on the line and someone else is trying to call them.

Likewise, Caller ID, which permits customers to see the numbers of incoming calls on a special device, provides a unique service for people concerned about unwanted calls.

In Maryland, call-waiting service costs $3.50 a month, or $42 a year. Caller ID costs $6.50 a month -- $78 a year -- and requires the purchase of a display device. The device, also sold by C&P, costs about $80.

For people who want an Answer Call-type service but don't want the Answer Call price tag, there is a cheap alternative: "Fixed Call Forward." The service allows customers to permanently route calls between any two points.

Fixed Call Forward doesn't take messages, but it does route calls to places where messages can be taken, such as home, the office or an answering service. Calls automatically roll over to the second site when met with no answer or a busy signal.

Fixed Call Forward costs $2 a month and covers an unlimited number of calls.

Even if you don't want to buy any optional services, chances are you're already buying at least one -- Touch Tone.

In Maryland, Touch Tone service is still sold as an optional service despite the fact that it's practically an industry standard. zTC Some states, such as California, don't charge extra for it. But C&P still does, $1.25 a month per line.

If you don't like the idea of paying $1.25 for Touch Tone, there is an alternative: For about $50, you can buy rotary phones that generate their own tone to talk to computers, like voice mail.

But you'll still have to dial -- instead of punch -- the number in. So far, nobody's come up with a solution for that.

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