Oscar S. Cisneros


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Choosing a Long Distance Carrier

By Oscar S. Cisneros
The Press-Enterprise

Inundated by choices in long-distance companies and calling plans? Advice is available from consumer groups on how to lower your phone bill.

"It can be a very intimidating process, because most long distance companies have many calling plans," said Becky Sachs, an associate with the nonprofit Telecommunications Research and Action Center in Washington D.C.

The center keeps track of long-distance rates and calling plans, publishing the results twice a year in a report called Tele-Tips, Sachs said.

"The biggest thing is for consumers to know their calling pattern - there is no one company that offers the best calling plan," Sachs said.

By understanding your calling pattern, Sachs said, you can choose the right plan.

For example, if you make frequent international calls, look for a plan with the best international rates. If you're often away from home, seek a good calling-card rate, she said.

"There are many features and services offered by long-distance carriers out there, and consumers really need to think about what services they may or may not need," Sachs said.

Once you've isolated calling patterns using your phone bill, Sachs said the next step is finding the right calling plan.

If you don't choose a plan, she warned, you might end up paying a company's "standard rates," which tend to be the most expensive.

Calling long-distance carriers and shopping around on the Internet are the best ways to find a good plan. If you don't have time for that, just call your long-distance company and ask for their best plan, she said.

"We encourage consumers, once a month or once every three months, to make that call and ask, 'Am I still on the best plan? ' " Sachs said. "You don't necessarily have to switch long-distance companies every month, but just making that call may get you a better calling plan (from your current company). "

Consumers should be cautious with companies that offer short-term incentives, such as a low rate for the first six months, said Michael Shames, spokesman for the San Diego-based Utility Consumers' Action Network.

"Any decent long-distance provider will charge you five or six cents per minute for calls inside of California and will only charge you nine or 10 cents per minute outside of California," Shames said.

Both Shames and Sachs said there are a few important factors to consider when shopping around:

  • Flat Rates - Read the fine print: So-called flat rates should apply at all times of the day, night, week and weekend. In general, flat rates are preferable because of their simplicity.
  • Monthly Fees - Avoid calling plans that offer great rates but add a fee at the end of the month. These fees average $ 4.50 and, when the bottom of the bill is examined, can erase savings from the accompanying per-minute rate.
  • Monthly Minimums - Some calling plans specify that you make a certain number of calls or face an extra fee. Make sure your average call volume exceeds that number or avoid the plan.
  • Calling Cards - Calling card rates vary from plan to plan and can have monthly fees. Consumers should watch for "surcharges," or fees added to the first minute of a calling-card call. For example, some companies advertise low calling-card rates but charge consumers more than $ 1 for the first minute of a call, with "low" rates coming after. Also, different companies have varying rates on calling-card calls made from pay phones.
  • Short-term Promotions - Some companies offer incentives, such as free calls or no monthly fees, for switching to their service. These promotions can run dry after a few months, leaving you with higher rates.
  • One-Minute Billing - A 11/2-minute long-distance call can count as a two-minute call when companies round up to the next minute. The action network encourages consumers to chose a company that charges in seconds, not minutes, to keep bills low. Six-second increments are recommended.

Long-distance billing traps
Source: The Utility Consumers' Action Network.

TRAP #1: Per second vs. per minute billing Avoid companies who bill you on one-minute or three-minute increments rather than six-second increments. This means that if you make a 30 second call, you will be billed for having been on the phone for one minute or more. In effect, they are doubling your rates.

TRAP #2: Minimum per-minute charges Watch out for companies like the "Dime-Line" which have a minimum three-minute charge. What they are doing is charging you for a three-minute call even if your call lasts only 10 seconds.

TRAP #3: Minimum monthly charges Another means of gouging used by some long-distance providers is the "monthly charge. " They come in a variety of forms, but the bottom line is that they require a $ 3 to $ 5 monthly charge on top of your phone call charges.

TRAP #4: High intra-state long distance rates A long-distance carrier offers a flat charge. Sounds good, but the rate may also include calls within the state of California. These "intra-state" calls should be billed at six to seven cents per minute. Some providers charge five cents a minute. If you are paying 10 cents fro these intra-state calls, you are paying up to 100 percent more than you should.

For more information, visit the Utility Consumers' Action Network Web site and the Telecommunications Research and Action Center.

The center's site offers an interactive "WebPricer" that consumers can use to compare rates.



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