Ouch! Pay-phone long-distance bills FCC says companies must quote rates on operator-aided calls

Communications

January 30, 1998|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

The Federal Communications Commission required companies yesterday that provide public-phone service to offer callers a rate quotation before connecting operator-assisted long-distance calls.

The FCC's move was meant to address complaints from consumers who get surprisingly large bills for credit-card or collect calls from a pay or hotel phone.

Such operator service provider (OSP) calls are routed through whatever carrier the phone's owner chooses, and high rates charged by OSP carriers caused more than 5,000 customer complaints to the FCC in the past two years.

FCC Chairman William Kennard said, "The purpose of this action is to give consumers the knowledge they need to hang up on outrageously high telephone rates." He said one customer testifying before his commission had paid $10 for a two-minute call, while another was charged $63 for a 40-minute call.

The new regulation, which Kennard and the FCC's four other commissioners supported unanimously, goes into effect July 1, with a temporary waiver for phones that require substantial retooling.

Under yesterday's decision, consumers who make such calls will be greeted by a voice notifying them that they can get rate information by pressing a button, such as the pound key.

The FCC did not specify what this message will say. John Muleta, deputy chief of the commission's common-carrier bureau, said, "We're giving flexibility to the carriers for the most appropriate way" to give rate information.

Requiring phone companies to disclose rates for the calls is nothing new, but this requirement had previously been satisfied by placing on the phone a number that customers could call to ask about the fee. This required the customer to make a separate call, which few have done.

"We're just making it simpler to get information," Muleta said.

Consumer advocates hailed the FCC's ruling. "This is a consumer-friendly decision," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America. "The FCC is saying you will get point-of-purchase information, which is normally what we get all the time when we buy things."

Consumers have sometimes become aware of the price they paid for an OSP call only after an outsized bill comes in. Johnny Robbins, a chef from Baltimore, said he was slapped with an $89 bill for a 20-minute collect call last month. "I was surprised," he said. "I said, 'Why is my bill up so high?' My bills are normally supposed to be about $38 per month." Robbins said he eventually got the charge removed by Bell Atlantic.

Large telephone companies said the FCC's approach is too broad. Sprint Corp. spokeswoman Eileen Doherty said the ruling should have been limited to "just those OSPs charging exorbitant rates."

She said the decision, which applies to giants like Sprint as well as smaller, less-established carriers, "unfortunately will raise our costs unnecessarily and perhaps raise costs for customers."

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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