Turning Up Plan Options for Low-Volume Callers


People who make lots of long-distance calls have no trouble finding great deals. But millions of low-volume customers face minimum usage charges and fees that add several dollars to their bills--even when their only calls are local.

AT&T;, MCI WorldCom, Sprint and other companies recently instituted monthly minimum charges ranging from $3 to $5 on many of their basic plans. In the last year, the number of long-distance calling plans with monthly fees or minimums nearly doubled, according to a new survey by Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based consumer advocacy group.

For the estimated 10 million people who make no long-distance calls each month, there are ways around the minimums. One option, though not widely publicized, is dropping the long-distance carrier and signing up for local-only phone service.

To do that, a customer calls his or her local phone company and cancels long-distance service. Both Pacific Bell and GTE will assess a change fee of about $5.

In place of taxes and fees usually tacked on by the long-distance carrier, callers with no carrier would be assessed a smaller "presubscribed interexchange carrier charge," or PICC. For PacBell customers, the PICC fee is $1.04 per month, and for GTE customers, the charge is 53 cents a month.

To call long-distance, customers could use a prepaid card, a special calling card that doesn't require a home account, or they could use a dial-around firm (commonly referred to as 10-10 companies).

But there are drawbacks. Many dial-around companies have monthly fees and other charges, and per-minute prices on prepaid cards and calling cards can be double the rates offered through standard long-distance plans.

For those reasons, callers might want to retain a long-distance carrier. Consumer Action suggests switching to a company with low rates and no monthly fee. Carriers such as IDT, Matrix and Pac-West Telecomm have plans charging 8 cents to 9.9 cents a minute with no monthly minimums or fees, according to the survey, which can be found at http://www.consumer-action.org.

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