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The Cutting Edge | 411 / A Consumer Look at Telecommunications

As MCI WorldCom Hikes Rates, so Should Callers Raise Level of Awareness

September 07, 2000|ELIZABETH DOUGLASS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you are a long-distance customer of MCI WorldCom, now is a good time to review your phone bill.

The company, a unit of WorldCom Inc. and the nation's second-largest long-distance carrier, raised rates recently for some of its most popular plans. Some of the price increases involve higher monthly fees while others include sharp hikes (a doubling in one case) in the per-minute long-distance rates.

According to ABellTolls.com, a consumer-oriented Web site that tracks long-distance rates, the higher prices affect customers of the company's "5 Cents Everyday Plus" as well as customers of the new "7 Cents Anytime," "9 Cents Anytime," and "Weekends" calling plans.

On the 5-cent plan, MCI WorldCom raised the monthly fee 20%, to $5.95, and boosted the weekday calling rate for state-to-state calls to 9 cents per minute, up from 7 cents a minute. The company also reduced the discount it gives customers who agree to receive online bills to $1 per month, down from $2 per month.

MCI WorldCom's moves underscore two key points for long-distance users:

* Keep an eye out for price and fee changes, which can appear with little or no notice (a note about MCI WorldCom's price changes appeared on August bills).

* Learn the difference between intrastate and interstate calling, and consider the price of both in choosing a long-distance plan.

Almost all long-distance carriers charge different per-minute rates for interstate and intrastate calling. Some are better than others at disclosing that difference.

On MCI WorldCom's Web site, for example, many advertisements talk about low per-minute state-to-state rates, but it takes a bit of persistence to discover a key piece of information: that the rates for intrastate long-distance calls (phone calls that start and end within the same state) are significantly higher.

In fact, unbeknownst to many customers, MCI WorldCom's most popular plans include intrastate rates that can be double the prominently advertised price for interstate calls (those calls that cross state lines).

The company's top calling plans, for example, come with names such as "5 Cents Anytime" or "7 Cents Anytime," but the rates are higher for in-state long-distance calls. The plans charge 10 cents per minute for such intrastate calls in California and in 10 other states. The price is 14 cents per minute in 31 states, 9 cents in Texas, and 7 cents in five states.

For customers in large states such as California, that kind of price difference can add up fast, especially because consumers often spend a sizable chunk of their long-distance budget on calls within California.

Phone Customers Vent: State regulators got an earful when they held 12 public hearings this summer to help consumers with phone service problems and to hear their suggestions for a "Telephone Consumer Bill of Rights."

Preliminary figures show that the meetings drew a record 1,200 people, with the biggest crowds at the meetings held in Santa Monica and San Francisco.

More than 350 people filled out forms to lodge informal complaints against phone companies, and about 300 people addressed officials from the California Public Utilities Commission to vent their frustrations. Another 1,200 consumers wrote to the PUC with their complaints and ideas.

PUC Commissioner Carl Wood, who is spearheading the bill of rights effort, has already proposed some consumer protection measures and will consider changes to those rules based on results from the hearings.

Adding 311 to the Mix: State lawmakers last week passed a bill that would allow cities, counties and other specified public safety agencies to create a telephone system that would establish "311" as a nonemergency phone number statewide.

The bill, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) as AB 2837, passed through the Senate with amendments and was affirmed by the Assembly. It now goes to Gov. Gray Davis.

Hertzberg believes the 311 system would help ease congestion on the 911 system, which gets clogged with non-urgent calls. In Los Angeles alone, more than 180,000 911 calls went unanswered in 1996. Officials estimate that 70% to 90% of calls to the 911 system involve nonemergency situations.

The new service would be designed and operated with assistance from the state, and could be offered in a few years. Consumers would pay for the new service the same way they pay for the 911 system--through a surcharge on their phone bills. The added cost has not yet been calculated.

Pacific Bell Wireless Makes Five: This week PacBell Wireless joined the crowd of companies offering limited Internet services through digital wireless phones. Now all five of the region's licensed mobile phone providers sell a wireless Web service.

PacBell's new offering, called "My Wireless Window," includes current stock quotes and other information, and costs $7.99 per month on top of a standard mobile phone service plan. An initial promotion waives the $7.99 fee for the first three months.

*

Times staff writer Elizabeth Douglass can be reached at elizabeth.douglass @latimes.com. Recent 411 columns are available at http://www.latimes.com/411.

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