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Options for long-distance service - You make the call

July 28, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

WorldCom's recent bankruptcy filing might prompt some long-distance phone customers to seek new carriers and/or long-distance services despite a WorldCom executive's assurance that MCI WorldCom customers won't pay for the parent company's huge losses.

The long-distance market now offers more choices than ever before, said Christopher B. Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

"The market is working," he said.

More than 500 long-distance carriers have cropped up in the U.S. since a 1984 court ruling that set the stage for the AT&T breakup and telecom industry's deregulation, according to information from the Federal Communications Commission.

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Phone cards and dial-around plans are among other, less traditional options available for long-distance customers who may have lost confidence in the nation's largest long-distance providers in the wake of several big business accounting scandals.

WorldCom Inc. on June 25 announced the discovery of $3.8 billion in accounting irregularities that made it appear WorldCom was profitable in 2001 and the first quarter of 2002, when the company was losing money.

The telecommunications giant filed for Chapter 11 protection on July 21. WorldCom Chief Executive John Sidgmore said the bankruptcy should not affect the company's customers.

He said WorldCom would not sell MCI.

If the company plans to discontinue service, it must give customers a minimum of 31 days notice so they can find alternative providers, FCC Spokesman Mike Balmoris said.

Calling options


Long-distance dialers can choose from a variety of primary service providers and access various long-distance networks by using dial-around numbers or phone cards.

Dial-around numbers bypass primary long-distance carriers. Every long-distance provider has at least one unique seven-digit code. Dialing this seven-digit access code - usually 10-10-xxx - before entering the normal 1+area code+number, routes the call through the carrier associated with that particular access code.

Rates and such charges as Universal Service Fees and monthly service fees vary from plan to plan.

WorldxChange's Talk Cents plan at 10-16-789 recently boasted rates of 1 cent per minute, but attached a $14.95 monthly fee and 9.9 percent USF to the service. AT&T's Lucky Dog dial-around plan at 10-10-345 advertised calls at 10 cents per minute, but tagged a 15-cent fee to each call.

Web sites such as 10-10 PhoneRates.com and 10-10 DialAroundPlans.com provide easy-to-use tables comparing more than a dozen of these plans.

A variety of disposable and reusable phone cards can also provide low-hassle long-distance options. Like other long-distance services, phone card rates and fees vary.

Extra charges might include connection fees, maintenance fees and even fees for exceeding predetermined call lengths.

Consumer Reports magazine has backed the rechargable AT&T prepaid phone card sold at Sam's Club. The 100-minute card costs $3.47 and has no expiration date, monthly fee or hidden surcharges.

1st-In-Long-Distance.com recently gave high ratings to the Cognigen Select Prepaid Calling Card, a $100 phone card which offers 917 minutes at 10.9 cents per minute and 24-hour customer service, remains activated for one year and doesn't have surcharges or connection fees.

CallingCards.com promoted the Liberty Express phone card, which costs $20 for 1,902 minutes. The card's pitfalls include an expiration date three months after the first use, a 65-cent pay phone surcharge, a 59-cent semi-monthly maintenance fee and a 49-cent connection fee.

Web comparisons


Residential long-distance customers who want to avoid punching in all the numbers needed to use most calling cards and dial-around plans might prefer shopping around for a new primary carrier.

Web sites such as LowerMyBills.com, SaveOnPhone.com and SmartPrice.com compare long-distance plans from well-known providers such as MCI WorldCom and AT&T to plans offered by smaller companies such as ZoneLD, Pioneer and Buyers Online.

Unlike the Big Three - AT&T, MCI WorldCom and Sprint - many small long-distance carriers offer plans without the monthly usage fees that drive costs up. Charges such as Universal Service Fees and calling card surcharges vary from provider to provider.

At 5.5 cents per minute any time for in-state calls and 3.8 cents per minute any time for out-of-state calls, Maine-based Pioneer Telephone offers the best long-distance value for the Hagerstown residential customer who spends about $40 monthly and makes most calls during evenings and weekends, according to SmartPrice.com. The customer's monthly Pioneer bill would average about $15, according to SmartPrice.com.

Pioneer charges no monthly fee and a 7.95 percent USF.

The Hagerstown customer's long-distance bill would average about $30 per month under AT&T's One Rate 7 Cents Plus plan (including a $6.90 monthly fee and 11.5 percent USF), about $31 per month under MCI's Anytime Advantage plan (including a $7.95 monthly fee and 9.9 percent USF) and about $34 monthly under the Sprint 5 Cents Anytime plan (including an $8.95 monthly fee and 10.98 percent USF), according to SmartPrice.com.

Many online services compare plans based upon the user's location, average calling times and call destinations. These and other long-distance Web sites - some of which may be affiliated with long-distance carriers - track plans likely to change often.

It is best to compare plans at a number of different online sites and choose the plan best suited to your individual calling needs, according to Consumer Reports.

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