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Phone customers to pick regional service

June 16, 1999|By ERIN HEATH

Telephone users across the Tri-State area have the chance to save money on regional calls.

Since May 7, customers have been able to choose which phone company will provide their regional toll-call service, in much the same way they select a long-distance carrier like MCI, AT&T and Sprint.

Previously, Bell Atlantic provided regional toll service for most telephone users in the mid-Atlantic region, which includes Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Customers who wanted to use a different service provider had to dial an access code first.

Because of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, customers and businesses in Maryland, for example, now can choose from among 23 companies to provide their regional toll service.

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The act was designed to increase competition between phone companies, said Theresa Czarski, of the Maryland Office of People's Counsel in Baltimore.

"(Regional) calls have typically been the most expensive calls consumers can make," she said. "There are a number of carriers now that are now offering attractive rates."

There are three types of phone calls: Local calls, long-distance toll calls and regional toll calls.

Regional toll calls are phone calls that go beyond the distance of a local call, but don't go far enough to be considered long-distance calls. In other words, they represent the middle distance of the three types of phone calls. Regional toll calls are sometimes called IntraLATA calls.

Previously, the rates for regional toll calls have varied with the location of each call, but have not necessarily been the most expensive, said Sandra Arnette, a Bell Atlantic spokeswoman.

Now that more phone companies are providing regional toll service, Bell Atlantic may introduce new calling plans to remain competitive in the market, she said.

"We (Bell Atlantic) stand to lose $74 million now that there are competitors," she said.

Customers will be able to switch companies for free until Aug. 4. After that, they will have to pay $5 per line to switch. Anyone who does not make a switch automatically will remain with Bell Atlantic.

To change phone companies, customers don't have to call Bell Atlantic, but should instead call the service provider of choice.

Customers can use different phone companies to provide service for local calls, regional toll calls and long-distance calls.

Changing phone companies "requires the consumer to do a little more work, but the price advantage can be worth it," Czarski said.

To choose a regional toll service provider, Czarski said people should look at three things before deciding on a plan: The average number of calls they make each month, the average length of time they spend on each call and the average geographical distance of each call.

Telephone users can consult their phone books to find out which areas are covered by regional toll calls. For example, the Hagerstown regional calling area covers much of Western Maryland and parts of northeastern West Virginia.

Customers may be able to negotiate with phone companies because there are so many different options and price plans available, Czarski said.

For a recorded list of regional toll service providers and how to contact them, anyone with a touch-tone phone can call 1-888-611-6980.

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