Complaints lead government to tighten rules on long-distance call blocking

June 23, 1991|By Jim Lynch | Jim Lynch,Knight-Ridder News Service

Last January, Robert L. Parker of Miami checked into a motel in Galveston, Texas, and tried to phone home.

It wasn't easy. He couldn't reach an AT&T operator, though he asked for one. It was expensive, costing about three times as much as such a call should, Mr. Parker estimates.

Mr. Parker was a victim of call blocking -- when a person is shunted to a long-distance carrier and is sometimes charged much more than what the largest long-distance carriers would charge.

Encouraged by the largest telephone companies and hundreds of complaints, the Federal Communications Commission is tightening rules on call blocking. Opponents include hotels and motels and many pay phone companies, which fear that they would have to replace their expensive phone systems. New rules are due out next month.

Until then, people like Mr. Parker, who travels a lot in his job arranging work for tugboats and barges, must wrestle with a system that even some regulators acknowledge is cumbersome.

Thousands of people are upset. In April, 400 people complained to the FCC -- nearly one-third of all telephone complaints logged. And more than 34,500 complained to American Telephone & Telegraph Co. in the first quarter of this year.

Placing a long-distance call froma hotel phone is not much different from calling long distance from your home. You pick up the receiver and dial.

The surprise comes when you get the bill. The hotel's long-distance phone company may be different from your regular company. Their rates are different, too. Often they are more expensive. The same thing can happen at a pay phone.

"You think you made a $3 call," Mr. Parker said. "There's a $12 call on your [phone] bill."

Those charges rankle Mr. Parker. He makes more than $2,000 worth of calls a month. He prefers to deal exclusively with AT&T.

But getting to an AT&T operator -- or one from any other big phone company -- can be difficult.

Sometimes you need only dial 00.

Or you can try a five-digit access code that starts with 10. That works sometimes.

Or you can dial a seven-digit number that starts with 950, or an 800 number, that sends you to thelong-distance carrier you want. That works sometimes.

But nothing works all the time. Even if it does work, it takes time to hook up with the operator of your choice. Mr. Parker, who makes more than two dozen calls in a typical work day, said he can lose an hour waiting for an operator.

In April, the FCC prohibited blocking of 950 numbers and 800 numbers, but the rule will phase in through 1994.

The FCC also requires operators to state what long-distance company they represent. It is due to rule by July 17 on whether to prohibit blocking of five-digit access codes.

AT&T leads that charge. It has to field most of those complaints. It also has invested thousands promoting its access code, 10288 (10-ATT). And a 1990 survey showed that consumers prefer a five-digit code to the longer numbers.

AT&T has a business stake in five-digit access, too. It lacks a 950 or 800 number because it was told itcould not have one when the Bell System was broken up in the '80s. It has told the FCC that adding the 950 or 800 number would cost $75 million initially and $250 million each year thereafter.

The $250 million includes the cost of employing operators for the system. The five-digit access system is automated. "It is a technological step backward," said Julie Spechler, an AT&T spokeswoman.

The five-digit codes, though, can muddle how a call is billed. Occasionally, the bill goes to the phone from which a call was made; then a hotel or a pay-phone owner is stuck with the tab.

And some older hotel phone systems can't handle the five-digit code.

Fixing that problem could cost $600 million, said Brian Kinsella, manager of governmental affairs for the American Hotel and Motel Association in Washington. Hoteliers shouldn't have to pay for a service that primarily benefits AT&T, Mr. Kinsella said.

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