By Oscar S. Cisneros
Inundated by choices in long-distance companies and calling
plans? Advice is available from consumer groups on how to lower your
"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,
"The biggest thing is for consumers to know their calling pattern
- there is no one company that offers the best calling plan," Sachs
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'
"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,"
Both Shames and Sachs said there are a few important factors
to consider when shopping around:
Long-distance billing traps
- 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
- One-Minute Billing - A 11/2-minute long-distance call can
count as a two-minute call when companies round up to the next
The action network encourages consumers to chose a company that
charges in seconds, not minutes, to keep bills low. Six-second
increments are recommended.
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
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.