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CONSUMERS : Cashing In on Custom Phone Plans

Times Staff Writer

Consumers hoping to save some cash on their phone bills eventually find themselves entering the time zone of Frequent Caller, Community Calling, Circle Calling, Reach Out, Niteline, ZUMS, and other bonus and discount plans.

If you are searching for phone savers--local and long-distance telephone service programs designed to save you money--you will find a staggering array of custom calling plans to choose from. In fact, many companies have new or modified programs out just this month, being advertised on TV and radio and in brochures enclosed with the monthly bill.

The Easiest Way

In many cases, you can save some money with these plans, and the easiest way to do that is to call your phone company representative and ask for assistance in determining what your personal calling patterns are. You have to know what your specific “service area” is, what your “local calling” area is, and, heaven forbid, if the calls you make the most to a certain location are inside or outside of your designated ZUM (Zone Usage Management) area.

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Within the state, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) establishes rates and regulates operations of GTE, Pacific Bell and the other companies. Although GTE and Pac Bell have different names for their discount calling services, their discount rates are the same and must be approved by the PUC before being offered to phone customers.

The Times’ inquiries to GTE and Pacific Bell--the phone companies that serve most of the Greater Los Angeles area--and to several of the long distance companies, found the representatives courteous and well-informed. They are trained to discuss a customer’s phone bill, and actually inform callers whether or not they can save money with a personalized plan. GTE has several Frequent Caller Plans, which, according to Tom Leweck, its public affairs director, can be “pretty well customized to your needs.” Pac Bell’s similar program is titled Call Bonus, and takes in several different discounted services to specific communities.

“You tell us what you want, and we will set up a plan,” said Leweck, explaining that the cost of the discount plan depends on where you want to call. “Because of the kind of community we are here (geographically spread out), frequent caller plans make a lot of sense.”

(Both the GTE and Pac Bell plans apply only within the Greater L. A. area. If you have a teen-ager in college up north or an aged relative down in San Diego, you will have to try the various discount or bonus calling programs offered by the long-distance carriers.)

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As an example of the kind of decisions that have to be made before signing up for customized calling in the L.A. area, Leweck noted that if you live in Santa Monica and you often call someone in Pasadena, you can save money with a custom calling plan. But you would need to make $10 to $15 worth of toll calls to Pasadena each month for the program to save you money.

From Santa Monica to Pasadena, Leweck explained, the community caller plan costs $6.30 a month. For that you get $12.60 worth of calls.

“You’re buying twice the value of the $6.30, and on top of that, you also get a 30% discount on all calls to Pasadena. Of course, if you go to Mexico for a month and don’t make any calls on the plan, we’re still going to bill you.”

Customers may also double and triple the billing allowances on both L.A.-area plans (you can buy $25 worth of calls from Santa Monica to Pasadena for $12.60), and add other communities to their customized service. Thus if you are a Santa Monica resident and call not only Pasadena frequently, but Whittier, too, you can set up a plan to include that city as well. The monthly rate for that is $7.45 in addition to the $6.30 for Pasadena.

Consumer experts advise you also inquire with both phone companies about the specific local calling area and ZUM calling area that applies to you.

A local calling area is a circle that extends about 8 miles from your residence and for which the calls are included free on your flat rate monthly phone bill. A ZUM calling area--to which calls are not free, but not as much as a toll call--is a circle generally 9-16 miles from your home.

Both Pacific Bell and GTE have something called a Circle Calling plan--for calls outside both your local and ZUM areas--that will give you a discount on calls made to numbers up to 40 miles from your home, but still in your service area.

GTE and Pac Bell have different service areas, so you must clarify the specific boundaries with each company.

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Long distance calling is a different matter. Since the federal deregulation of AT&T; in 1984, telephone customers have a choice of several long distance companies, each with different plans and rates.

The Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group set up “to promote the interests of residential telecommunications users,” recommends that phone consumers consider three factors in choosing a long-distance plan: cost per month, features of the service that can be beneficial to you, and quality--if the company delivers what it is offering.

If you want TRAC to do the analyzing of your phone bill for you, it will do a personalized, computer printout comparing the rates different companies would have charged for a specified number of calls from your monthly phone bill. For analyzing 30 calls, for example, TRAC charges $35 for non-members, $30 for members.

Most of the major long-distance companies also offer some sort of discount plan or bonus based on the amount of money a customer spends each month.

US Sprint, for instance, will give you a 1% to 6% discount for a monthly bill of $25 to $100 or more; MCI, 2% off on bills from $50 to $100 and 5% over $100 on daytime calls or you can join its Prime Calling Option, which costs $15 a month for a 15% discount on all your long distance calls.

ITT offers customers a 2% to 10% volume discount for a monthly bill of $15 to $200 or more, but also has a Niteline plan. Similar to AT&T;'s popular Reach Out America programs, Niteline costs $11.95 a month for one evening, night or weekend hour; $10 for each additional hour. There is no cost to join the plan.

In July, Reach Out America became a 24-hour calling plan, meaning that any direct-dialed, out-of-state long distance call from your home falls under the plan. And from now until Dec. 4 AT&T; is waiving the $10 fee to sign up.

Reach Out plans, company representatives say, are particularly suited to customers who make calls to locations more than 300 miles away.

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For information on long distance customer service and discount plans applicable to residences call: AT&T; at 1-800-222-0300; US Sprint, 1-800-877-4000; MCI, 1-800-444-3333; ITT, 1-800-526-3000.


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