Judge puts Baby Bell on hold Bell Atlantic told to halt ads against AT&T's 800 number

July 19, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

Call it 1-800-CAT-FITE.

AT&T Corp. and Bell Atlantic Corp. are at it again. Never fond of each other, and set to become across-the-board competitors as new federal laws allow them into each other's core business, their spats over a new AT&T marketing tactic in the credit-card calling business spilled over into federal court in Virginia this week.

AT&T got a temporary restraining order Monday barring Bell Atlantic from continuing a series of newspaper ads making fun of AT&T's new pricing plan for credit-card calls and, not surprisingly, suggesting consumers should use a Bell Atlantic IQ card instead.

Courtroom politesse aside, the dialogue can be summarized more or less this way: Money hog, jabs Bell Atlantic. Liar, ripostes AT&T.

Actually, the players' lines are more or less interchangeable.

The latest spat began July 10, when AT&T sent out a press release announcing rate cuts for credit-card calls, averaging 7 percent for Maryland consumers, but adding that AT&T customers will have to dial 1-800-CALL-ATT to get the lower price.

Dialing zero for operator and then the number won't connect long-distance calls to the AT&T network unless the phone's owner has chosen AT&T to provide long-distance service. Pay phones and hotel phones are markets where AT&T has lost major ground to smaller, often high-priced carriers -- and they are also prime markets for credit-card calls.

AT&T says its prime target is no-name long-distance phone companies that pump up rates in order to make extra profits from callers who don't pay attention to who is handling their call.

"Right now, customers have to do many different things if they're not dialing their own telephone," said Candace Humphrey, an AT&T spokeswoman. "We're trying to give customers one number to dial so they can always get through to AT&T's network. If you're like me, a lot of times you're doing 10 million things while you're waiting and you don't listen" to the tape that tells you which carrier is handling the call.

But no-names aren't the only companies being cut off, Bell Atlantic said. AT&T is letting expire an agreement in which Bell Atlantic operators would handle calls charged to an AT&T card.

For local toll calls, dialing 1-800-CALL-ATT means Bell Atlantic rTC doesn't handle the call because it's carried over AT&T. Even for long-distance calls Bell Atlantic is barred from carrying, it could have collected a small charge under the old system for using its local network to connect the call to the long-distance system.

If an AT&T customer tries to use zero-plus dialing from a phone that doesn't use AT&T for long distance, she will be met by a Bell Atlantic operator explaining that AT&T now requires an access code, said Ells Edwards, a Bell Atlantic spokesman.

Bell Atlantic doesn't plan to volunteer exactly what that code is, but will put calls through if the customer insists.

"AT&T is blowing smoke," Edwards said. "They get all the money, and we don't get any. That's what all this is about."

Retorts Ritch Blasi, an AT&T spokesman, "Whenever you dial zero-plus, the cash register opens for Bell Atlantic. After that, you can get Joe Blow's service."

Acting swiftly, Bell Atlantic had its own press release out the same day AT&T introduced its 800 number.

The release said the "AT&T move makes millions of calling card calls complicated and expensive" and claimed its rival's move would hurt, among others, elderly people trying to reach doctors.

Banking on consumers' preference for dialing fewer numbers rather than more, Bell Atlantic followed up with advertising in six states and Washington, D.C., last Friday and Monday, contending that AT&T's move means "The End Is Near" for convenient zero-plus dialing -- unless you use Bell Atlantic's card instead.

So AT&T, upset that Bell Atlantic's ads glossed over the details of its plan, went to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Payne issued the temporary restraining order against the Bell Atlantic ads, pending a hearing on an injunction Monday. He overruled Bell Atlantic's arguments that the ads were true and that the issue was moot because the ad campaign was already over.

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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