L.A. Cellular Disconnects Today, Folds Into AT&T;


L.A. Cellular formally becomes part of AT&T; Wireless today in a move that allows the latter to immediately begin selling AT&T; service plans, including its popular national plan that eliminates roaming and long-distance charges for heavy users.

"For the most part, a lot of L.A. Cellular will disappear on Monday," said an official close to AT&T; who asked not to be identified.

The changeover will eliminate a longtime brand in Southern California, but customers will not see an immediate change in their calling plans or bills.

Customers will eventually experience changes that allow them access to AT&T; services, pricing plans and packages that bundle together wireless, long-distance and Internet service.

L.A. Cellular, which launched mobile service in the region in 1987, is a partnership owned by AT&T; and BellSouth. Until recently, they jointly managed the venture--an arrangement that left both companies unable to use their separate brands or sell their services in the region.

In October, the two companies rearranged their wireless partnerships in Los Angeles and in Houston and Galveston, Texas, to give BellSouth management control of the Texas business and AT&T; management control over L.A. Cellular. Since that deal was announced, it has been clear that AT&T; intended to beef up service and offer its own plans in Los Angeles.

A key motivation for the change was to bring AT&T;'s Digital One-Rate plans to Southern California, one of the nation's largest wireless markets and a key region for any national service.

"One of the holes in the national network was the whole Los Angeles area," said the official. "It's been a big issue, not just for people in Los Angeles, but also for all the people who travel to Los Angeles."

The plans, introduced last summer, offer frequent travelers a hefty savings on roaming and long-distance calls made from their wireless phones on the road. Users buy special phones and pay a monthly fee ranging from $90 to $150.

Roaming charges are per-minute fees that wireless companies pay to each other when a customer makes a call while in another company's territory.

Under the one-rate plan, AT&T; doesn't lose money when those customers stay on the company's wide-ranging network. However, in markets where AT&T; does not own the network, it must still pay the other carrier roaming charges--even if it does not pass those fees on to the user.

Some California customers have gone to great lengths to get lower fees--including signing up in AT&T; Wireless markets such as Santa Barbara, Las Vegas or Phoenix.

The introduction of AT&T;'s single-rate plan was considered a significant shift for the mobile market and forced other carriers to follow. Sprint PCS offers a national flat-rate service, and regional players Pacific Bell Wireless and AirTouch offer more limited versions of the one-rate concept.

Some of those newer packages still include toll and long-distance fees, but their lower monthly fees appeal to nonbusiness users, who don't require national roaming features and spend about $40 a month on calls.

Times staff writer Elizabeth Douglass can be reached via e-mail at elizabeth.douglass@latimes.com.

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