Despite moves by long-distance companies to simplify their rates, signing up for a long-distance plan that best suits your calling needs still requires some homework.
Simplified pricing gives consumers a better sense of how to compare one rate with another, but it doesn't eliminate the need to comparison-shop. It also hasn't sounded a wake-up call to the one-third of Americans who have no idea what long-distance plan they're using, analysts say.
To encourage consumers to shop around for the cheapest rates, the Washington-based Telecommunications Research and Action Center rolled out WebPricer this month. The Net-based tool allows consumers to compare seven long-distance companies' rates for the numbers they call most often.
The WebPricer is available the center's Web page at http://www.trac.org
"The recent movement toward simplicity in pricing has been in response, in large part, to the fact that there was a need for Web services like this," said Boyd Peterson, a telecommunications analyst at Yankee Group, a Boston-based research firm. "The goal is to make it as simple as possible for consumers to make a choice without them having to get a calculator out."
The service is TRAC's second shot at designing a Web-based tool for comparing long-distance rates. The first system was based on the Java programming language and wasn't compatible with many computer systems, said Geoff Mordock, a research associate at the center. The WebPricer runs on most browsers, making it easier for more consumers to access it, he said.
The system was designed to provide a range of long-distance rates to consumers in the event a pending Federal Communications Commission order requiring long-distance companies not to file tariffs goes into effect, Mordock said. (Companies now are required to file tariffs, which delineate their pricing plans, with the FCC each time they change their rates.) The FCC order is awaiting review by the U.S. District Court in Washington.
San Francisco-based Salestar, the company TRAC teamed with to build and operate the WebPricer, has an interest in ensuring it can obtain long-distance companies' tariffs, since it makes software that tracks those rates.
For now, carriers are submitting tariffs directly, Mordock said.
Consumers can use WebPricer to compare seven long-distance carriers--including AT&T;, MCI, Sprint and GTE--by entering their area code, the first three digits of their phone number and the area codes and prefixes for the numbers they call most often.
The template also asks users to fill in what time of day they call these numbers.
The WebPricer compares rates for state-to-state calls only and not those between area codes in the same state, which is important to note, especially in California.
For instance, a rate comparison for a 30-minute evening call from Studio City to Denver found that LCI International offered the lowest price with its LCI Difference plan, at $2.70. Sprint had the highest price through its MTS Basic Sprint Service plan, at $5.70, the same price AT&T; offered through its True Reach Savings Plan.
Salestar updates the database monthly by choosing up to five of the lowest-priced rate plans for each carrier (including the basic rate schedule for each company).
There are several things to remember when using the WebPricer. It does not include rates for Worldcom, Frontier or the approximately 400 resellers who buy long-distance minutes at wholesale rates from major carriers and resell them to consumers. It does not include monthly charges.
The service also does not reflect special promotions. Long-distance carriers say that's why they recommend consumers use WebPricer for preliminary research but call them directly to ask for more detailed information.
Times staff writer Jennifer Oldham can be reached at email@example.com