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S. J. DIAMOND

Reaching Out Is Not as Simple as It Used to Be

July 28, 1986|S. J. DIAMOND

If the breakup of American Telephone & Telegraph ever seemed a good thing to the consumer, it probably doesn't now that "ballots" are going out from local phone companies asking everyone to pick a long-distance company. Despite all of the information accompanying the ballots, many consumers are confused, if not totally ignorant, of what they're doing.

"We chose AT&T because to pick another company, you have to do some investigation," says a Los Angeles doctor, "and we didn't want to bother."

Most people understand the situation: Local phone companies are now required to make technical conversions so they can offer all long-distance companies "equal access" to their networks, and to let customers choose their "primary" long-distance carrier--the one they'll use by simply dialing the magic "1" before the area code and number. Converting one area at a time, California's Pacific Bell, for one, will have 75% of its 7 million customers balloted and switched by fall. More than half of the 14 million lines of New York and New England telephone companies will be switched by year-end.

Many Misconceptions

But that's all most people understand. Many think that not returning the ballot (one-fifth of Pacific Bell's customers) means they'll stay with AT&T--the first of several prevalent misconceptions. Believing that this would give AT&T an unfair competitive edge, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that defaulters must instead be assigned by "random allocation," i.e. the company "allocates them based on the percentage of customers who did make that choice in the area," explains Tom Leweck, spokesman for General Telephone of California. Thus, if 60% of the ballots specified AT&T, 60% of the defaulters would be assigned to AT&T.

Then, says Leweck, "some time after the conversion--with General, 20 days--you'll get a second ballot telling you to whom you were allocated. You can mark that for another company and send it back, or 70 days after the conversion, you'll be converted." Indeed, up to six months after the conversion--even after they've been balloted twice--defaulters can call and change free.

The obedient customer who returns his original ballot can also change his mind, but (is this fair?) it will cost him from $2.50 to almost $15, depending on what his local company claims it costs it to make the change.

The second big misconception is that one is wed to one's choice, monogamously, that "you can't use the others, only what you've been assigned to," says one woman. Wrong. Beyond one's "primary" attachment, one can be a "casual user" of any and all carriers, dialing "10" and their three-digit identity code for access (only one's primary carrier gets the magic "1"). One can establish formal accounts with other carriers--and be billed separately--or, in most cases, simply use them occasionally and be billed for those calls on the local company's monthly bill.

Casual Use

(One new complication: Carriers sometimes solicit new customers without clarifying what kind of account is being opened, then report to the local phone company that the customer chose them as primary--in essence filing the ballot for them.)

The point is that customers can play the field. "You may select one company and find that another has a better rate to Chicago," says Leweck. "So for Chicago calls, you use the second company via its five-digit code. It's like deciding where to do most of your grocery shopping. You can still use other specialty stores occasionally."

"The most significant item on my bills were calls to my parents in New Jersey," says an Arcadia woman, "so I called several companies and said just give me that rate. Sprint was the cheapest, so I chose them. I don't lose anything because if I want an AT&T operator, I can just plug in their code and get one."

Ah yes, the question of the "O" operator, whose assistance is needed for collect, person-to-person and some credit card calls. It's certainly true that so far, AT&T has the only system of long-distance operators, whatever the other carriers say ("Yes, we offer operator assistance!"). But simply because anyone can dial "10288" and gain access to AT&T, it doesn't mean that only those who choose AT&T can get operator assistance.

At the moment, and almost everywhere, dialing one "0" gets a local operator, helpful only on local or so-called local long-distance calls (within a defined service area, e.g. the Los Angeles Basin). On some systems (General Telephone of California, for one), that "0" operator will also provide long-distance assistance on behalf of AT&T. Elsewhere, a new "00" code is supposed to connect all callers to their chosen carrier's operator. But since only AT&T has operators, only people signed up with AT&T actually get one. Those on other carriers get--at best--a recording that tells them to dial "10288" and go out on AT&T. (Long-distance directory service may present similar problems).

'Working Itself Out'

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