Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How to Untangle the Long-Distance Phone-Pricing Knots

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How to Untangle the Long-Distance Phone-Pricing Knots

Article excerpt

IF America's long-distance carriers have set out to confuse consumers with their dazzling array of promotions and discounts, then they certainly deserve gold medals.

A basic question such as, "What is the range of per minute charges on your long-distance calls?" took AT&T, MCI, and Sprint operators about 10 minutes to answer when queried recently.

The junior player among the big three, Sprint, recently tried to simplify prices by offering dialers just two basic rates - 22 cents per minute during the day and 10 cents per minute for evening use.

Yet, industry observers say competitors intentionally create a fog of special plans and discounts to make comparison shopping confusing. "There isn't a huge difference. So the companies have to come up with some way to set themselves apart from their competitors, and they try to do it with marketing," says Bradley Stillman, legislative counsel at the Consumer Federation of America in Washington.

Adding to the difficulty of choosing a long-distance carrier is the proliferation of new, smaller companies - 444 to be exact, says statistician Katie Rangos, at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Who's the cheapest?

As for who provides the least expensive service, telephone companies and consumer advocates agree that it all depends on where you call, when, and how often a customer dials long distance. That's because some carriers may have lower rates in the early evening, while others may be especially inexpensive for those who make more than $75 worth of long-distance calls a month.

At present - and keep in mind that rates and plans change often - MCI claims that its prices are lower than AT&T and Sprint. For the next six months, those who sign up for its "New Friends and Family" plan get one-half off the usual base rates, which translates into an actual tariff of 12 cents to 17 cents a minute during the day; 7 cents to 11.5 cents in the evening; and 6 cents to 8.5 cents at night and on weekends. …

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