If on wrong phone-calling plan, you can end up paying far more

Staying Ahead

July 20, 1998|By Jane Bryant Quinn

YOU MAY FIND that your long-distance telephone bill keeps going up, despite the lower rates per minute that the phone companies promote. Two things are happening: You're paying more fees and getting hit with restructured charges.

Formerly, the best advice was "get on any calling plan," says Samuel Simon, founder of the Telecommunications Research & Action Center (TRAC) in Washington. Calling plans, offered by all the long-distance carriers, cost less than the carriers' standard rates.

But today, if you're on the wrong calling plan, "you could be paying nearly double what you would if you were on the right plan for the way you use the phone," Simon says.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) crowed that long-distance bills were going to fall. The commission lowered the fees that the carriers pay the local telephone networks for connecting through their lines.

That gave the carriers an estimated $1.5 billion windfall, which they were supposed to pass along to you.

Guess what? Although the carriers cut some rates, they've imposed a new "carrier line charge" or "access fee" on their customers. Generally it's 80 cents to $1.07 per account, according to TRAC. On average, consumers lost.

Keep America Connected, a consumer group based in Washington, recently tested some typical "baskets" or groups of calls. The result: "Most customers are paying more for their total long-distance bills than they were last September," says spokeswoman Angela Ledford. The FCC should be eating crow.

Here's what else is going up:

* Calls at certain times of day. The major phone companies extended their weekday "daytime" calling periods, which cost the most. Day rates used to run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; now they go from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Night-time rates are up, too.

* Calls over shorter distances. The majors now charge a flat per-mile rate instead of rates that rise the farther away you call. Rates for faraway calls went down a little, while rates for closer calls went up.

* Directory assistance. The majors recently put prices up for their standard service.

* Pay phone surcharges. When you call collect from a pay phone, the surcharge is around $2. Phones owned by little-known carriers may charge mile-high fees and rates. Starting this month, you'll have to be told, in advance, what your cost is going to be.

* Monthly minimums. Many calling plans now impose a minimum monthly fee ($1 to $5), combined with a lower per-minute rate. That helps high-volume users but raises fees on people who don't make a lot of calls.

* Random rates. If you place a call through a carrier that's not your own, dialing a special access code, you may pay zTC surcharge of $1.99.

* Universal service. There's a new fee to recoup what phone companies pay to help subsidize rural areas, the poor and others.

How do you get the best long-distance rates today? Try four things:

* Call weekends (especially Sundays for MCI customers). That's when rates are lowest.

* Find the cheapest calling plan. Web-heads can use TRAC's new Internet pricing service for interstate calls, at www.trac.org.

Paper-and-pencil types can send for TRAC's Tele-Tips Residential Long Distance Comparison Chart ($5) or the Small Business chart ($7), P.O. Box 27279, Washington, D.C. 20005. Include a self-addressed, business-size envelope, with 55 cents' worth of stamps.

Important note: The FCC may end mandatory disclosure of telephone rates and fees. If that happens, you'll lose TRAC and other services that compare prices for customers.

* If you're calling from a phone that's not your own, consider a prepaid phone card, available at many stores. They typically cost $5 to $20. To use them, you dial an 800 number, punch in your card number, then dial the telephone number you're calling. As the call proceeds, the per-minute cost is deducted from your card account. The call cuts off when the money in your account runs out.

You typically pay a flat rate per minute for U.S. calls (19 to 41 cents), regardless of the time of day. There may be a separate connection charge for international calls.

* Sign up for a plan through the Internet. America Online, MCI, Sprint and AT&T all have calling plans at 9 cents or 10 cents a minute.

Washington Post Writers Group

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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