Until two summers ago, no one had ever witnessed such a spectacle--the hawking of long-distance telephone services as if they were so many brands of toilet paper, toothpaste or soap.
Since that pioneer campaign in the isolated West Virginia capital of Charleston, this strange marketing phenomenon has spread across the nation at a quickening pace as local phone companies upgrade the switches that enable customers of long-distance carriers to originate and complete their calls.
Once converted, these switches provide all carriers the same quality of connection and ease of access to their customers as was previously enjoyed only by American Telephone & Telegraph, builder of the nation's basic phone network.
This summer, the competing long-distance carriers are focusing their biggest sales efforts on Southern California, where by Sept. 1 about two-thirds of all phone lines will be hooked to the computer-controlled switches, which allow customers to reach whichever carrier they wish to designate merely by dialing 1.
Until this "equal-access" programing is installed, only AT&T customers are so favored. In contrast, customers of MCI, GTE Sprint, Allnet, US Telecom and ITT Longer Distance, among others, must use push-button phones--not rotary-dial phones--and must enter a finger-daunting string of digits to reach their carrier.
In June, July and August alone, Pacific Bell will convert 1,193,581 phone lines in the Los Angeles area, prefix by prefix, to equal-access service. Communities affected include some or all of Pacific's customers in Agoura, Arcadia, Bell, Calabasas, Canoga Park, Compton, Culver City, El Monte, Hawthorne, Hollywood, Huntington Park, Inglewood, La Crescenta, North Hollywood, Northridge, Pasadena, Reseda, San Gabriel, San Pedro, South Gate, West Los Angeles, Wilmington and 75 prefixes in Los Angeles.
General Telephone of California, which converted only 12.8% of its 2.8 million lines last year, will boost that to 63.7% this year and to 91.8% by the end of next year.
"With equal access, customers can use any one of a number of long-distance companies without having to dial any more digits than they do now with AT&T," said Carolyn Webb de Macias, a Pacific Bell area vice president, "and they can use either a Touch-Tone or a rotary-dial telephone."
Under equal access, other long-distance carriers can still be used, besides the designated primary carrier, by dialing 10 and a three-digit code to identify the company--288 for AT&T, 222 for MCI, 777 for GTE Sprint, 444 for Allnet, 488 for ITT, and 333 for US Telecom (which on July 1 will merge with GTE into US Sprint, retaining Sprint's code).
The equal-access phenomenon resulted from the breakup of the Bell System on Jan. 1, 1984, when AT&T was divested of its local phone companies in settlement of a long-standing antitrust suit. In exchange, AT&T kept the long-distance service, which it entrusted to a new subsidiary, AT&T Communications, and won the right to enter the unregulated information market from which it had been barred by the Federal Communications Commission.
The Bell System, operating as a fully regulated monopoly, was designed to work only with AT&T equipment--not with that of MCI, whose entrepreneurial zeal opened up long-distance service to increasing competition, or with that of any of the other "alternative" carriers that followed MCI's lead.
Ordered Equal Access
Consequently, in order to enhance competition, the settlement judgment specified that the former Bell operating companies begin offering all carriers who want it equal access to their customers by Sept. 1, 1984, and complete conversion of at least two-thirds of their lines by this September.
Pacific Bell converted 36.6% of its lines last year, expects to have about 75% converted by September and 99% by 1992. Consequently, a sizable number of Californians already have made their choice of a preferred carrier.
In the months since Charleston pioneered equal-access service--a distinction it obtained by the fact that the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of West Virginia happened to have a converted switch ready to go in July, 1984--the rules of the game have changed significantly.
These changes have put more pressure on the phone customer to designate a primary long-distance carrier. As of May 31, 1985, the FCC decided that local customers who fail to designate a preferred carrier could no longer simply be left, by default, with AT&T. The so-called default plan had been justified as reducing confusion, but AT&T's competitors roundly criticized it from the outset as unfair to them.
Now, under FCC order, customers who fail to designate a primary carrier are assigned to one at random by their local phone company. Before the rule change, only about one-quarter of the customers designated a "dial 1" carrier--AT&T or another--and the remaining three-quarters who made no choice remained with AT&T.
Most Make Own Choice