I am mad as hell about a $350 telephone bill, and have no recourse. You might think I
ran up these charges on my home phone bill, a cellular phone bill, or even my departmental
corporate phone bill. If you guessed any of the above, you would be incorrect - the $350
phone bill was the result of a couple of seven-digit calls to my ISP, made during a
four-day stay at a prominent independent Milpitas, California hotel. That's $87.50 per
day, without ever dialing a one or an area code. I was horrified when I saw this bill at
check-out. Still, the agent at the front desk flatly told me that these were indeed my
charges, and I'd have to pay them.
I thought back to what happened the day I checked in. My routine begins with me plugging
in my computer, logging in using Netcom's toll-free number, and then checking Netcom's Web
site for a local dial-up number. On this trip, I found four telephone numbers that shared
the area code in which I was staying. I chose the first number, and dialed seven numbers
to connect to my ISP. I download e-mail as I unpacked.
This has been my routine for years. I have learned through experience that the typical
local telephone call from a hotel costs a usurious 75 cents. When the hotel provides two
phone lines, it makes sense to keep my connection permanent as often as possible to avoid
having a phone bill peppered with $0.75 charges. I often leave my connection nailed up all
night, as I did once on this past trip.
FORGET ABOUT AREA CODE CUES
Now I've learned from experience again. You don't need to dial a one or area code for
local long-distance calls In California - just dial seven digits as though the call were
local. In my home state of Connecticut, you must dial one plus an area code to be charged
for a similar local long-distance call. I travel often, and had never even heard of the
possibility of being charged for local long-distance without first dialing at least a one.
California is the first state that I am aware of that deviates from the standard billing
system. It seems other states may soon adopt similar dialing plans as well. Couple this
dialing discrepancy with the fact that the hotel marks up the per-minute charges of your
call astronomically, and you have a recipe for Web access and local calling disaster.
As I checked out of the hotel, I told the agent at the front desk what I had discovered
about the local long-distance calls, and asked her if any other customers ever complained
about these ridiculous charges. I was told that many customers had indeed complained, and
that management was considering changing the pricing structure (though this wouldn't
affect me retroactively).
While I am upset with all hotels for marking up long distance calls so ridiculously
high, I am more upset with the fact that I was charged at all for phone calls that are
free in most every other if not every state. I feel taken advantage of, and I've been
forced to learn a very expensive lesson. Although I am against strong government
regulation in general, this seem like a place that the government should step in to
protect citizens from being cheated.
HITTING THE BOOKS
I am dumbfounded that such a disparity could be allowed to exist between the way toll
calls are made in one state versus another. If you live in California or another state
that allows seven-digit local long-distance dialing, you can take measures to avoid
expensive calls. But what about the business or pleasure traveler, or a new resident to
the state? What recourse do these people have? What unscrupulous group got this past our
government, the FCC, and the general population? After tremendous amounts of research
spanning days, I still can't pinpoint exactly how this is allowed to happen - and the
information I have found has only frustrated me more.
IntraLATA Versus Area Codes
The types of calls I was making are known as "intraLATA," where LATA is the
acronym for Local Access Transport Area, which defines a geographic area with common
economic and social attributes. A LATA may cross a state boundary. AT&T subdivided the
United States into 160 LATAs upon divestiture of its local exchange operations in 1984.
Each LATA approximates the subdivision of AT&T's Long Line network prior to
divestiture. As part of the divestiture agreement, AT&T and other interexchange
carriers (IXCs) could provide service between LATAs (interLATA), while the LECs could
provide service within a LATA (intraLATA). IntraLATA calls are typically calls greater
than 16 or 17 miles away from your location, but still within your local phone companies'
Short-hop (or local) toll telephone calls (that is, calls within a LATA) can be handled
by a LEC (usually an RBOC) or (in most states) by an IXC (though extra digits must usually
be dialed to select a carrier other than your LEC for these short-hop toll calls).
In California, you can dial any number in your Service Area and, unless you looked in
your telephone directory or white pages to note that the number was not in your
"Local and Nearby Calling" area, you would not know you were dialing a toll
call. What that means is you are charged by the local telephone company at their
prevailing local long-distance rates, which are dependent upon the distance and the time
of day. It is common for these rates to be as high as $0.25 per minute, billed in
one-minute increments! Calling a mere 20 miles away for three minutes and one second could
cost you a buck - hardly the kind of costs we associate with a local call.
WHERE CHARGES BEGIN AND END
It seems the best way to figure out where intraLATA charges begin is to consult the local
white pages. Your local telephone company should list all of the zones, mileage bands, and
costs to call each of these areas. You may also call your local operator and ask for a
rate quote. It is up to the customer to familiarize themselves with their LEC and
long-distance carrier's rates; then shop, compare, and choose which carrier they wish to
use to place their local long-distance call.
Please reflect on that last statement for a minute. It is up to the customer to
familiarize themselves with their LEC and long-distance carrier's rates; then shop,
compare, and choose which carrier they wish to use to place their local long-distance
call. Caveat caller! Does this make any sense at all? Travel over a state border, and now
the first thing I need to do is call an operator for the state to ask how the local phone
company will charge me for calls that I would normally think are free.
Once you accept that you must do this research for every state to which you travel, you
need to know which exchange is a free call from which other exchange. You now need a list
of exchanges that are free from where you are calling. Suppose you go to another exchange
- remember to again call the operator and ask which exchanges are now free to call. This
is the most absurd concept. The caller must become an expert on local exchanges and the
various LATAs and intraLATA charges and exchanges, even if they're only in the state for a
short period of time. There are thousands of current exchanges, and new exchanges come on
line constantly as we add new fax machines, cellular phones, and second phone lines. Are
consumers getting such a great deal with the Telecommunications Act of 1996?
"GET REAL," I'M TOLD
Numerous telephone calls and Web searches have resulted in little, if any, useful
information on this topic (although I did learn a great deal about is the legal system and
One site that proved useful was the Utility Consumers'Action Network (UCAN) at www.ucan.org. Although this site does not specialize in
telecommunications, Charles Carbone, a consumer advocate at UCAN, has had complaints about
the numbering system inconsistencies. Carbone says people just have to get past the idea
that the number of digits you dial has anything to do with the pricing structure that
applies to the call. California, he says, is not unique. Other states allow seven-digit
I asked if there was any central information source that could let people look up this
sort of information, where people could even compare rates from different providers. There
is none. I asked if regulators could mandate that one be created. Carbone said, "Get
He argued there is little incentive to create such a guide because the perception is
that consumers wouldn't bother to use it. Bottom line: It's too much bother for consumers
to compare rates because the differences in the rates are too small. The effort involved
can't be justified. (Never mind that incumbent providers would have little incentive to
have their rates posted alongside those from competitors.) You'd only care about comparing
rates if the rates were significantly different. But rates would be significantly
different only if you had a lot of competition, and we don't. In fact, we have fewer
competitors every day, with all the consolidation and convergence going on.
I asked Carbone who he holds responsible for this intraLATA nightmare. Charles listed
nearly everyone involved, starting with the FCC. He also threw in the public utility
commissions and the LECs, Congress, and the President. The entire regulatory apparatus is
WHO'S SETTING THESE SCHEMES?
Another helpful resource is The Center for Communications Management Information (CCMI) at
www.ucg.com/ccmi/. CCMI was able to shed some light
on how these dialing schemes are created. According to CCMI's George David, the dominant
ILEC in any state recommends a dialing plan. Usually, the recommendation is a formal
submission to the state's public utility commission. The state usually approves whatever
the ILEC proposes.
Regulators, it seems, have little motivation to prevent the sort of confusion travelers
experience over seven-digit toll calls. Residents are usually familiar with their state's
calling plan, and they tend to frown on any change to their routine. There are also
historical issues. Some dialing plans evolved based on the limitations of whatever
equipment had been installed locally. (Of course, this is becoming less of an issue as
people continue to upgrade their equipment.)
Nonetheless, there is some movement toward a national dialing plan. David cites the
Industry Numbering Committee, which can be found at www.atis.org/atis/clc/inc/inchom.htm.
David continued by noting that it is difficult to track all exchanges in the country. This
task is tough enough with all the existing exchanges - don't forget that about 1,000 new
telephone exchanges are added per month in the U.S.
IT'S BROKE, LET'S FIX IT
There is no quick fix here. The countless legal documents on the Web detailing calling
plans for each state say it all. We have too much regulation already, and not enough
competition. RBOCs and ILECs have a stranglehold on our regulatory system, and as
customers of long-distance, we still don't have access to inexpensive, high-speed Internet
access. Now we have to memorize which exchanges are local and which are toll calls for
every exchange we enter in every state. I am annoyed and confused, and I know we need
better choices than we have today.
While telephone companies spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying government
officials expressing their interests, who watches out for the consumer's interests? After
my recent experience in California, I'd have to say no one. There are billions of dollars
being invested in wireless infrastructures and IP telephony fiber backbones and cable
modems. Competition is just around the corner, but the corner keeps getting farther away,
it seems. Let's hope the government holds strong, and limits any regulation of Internet
telephony. After, these types of leading-edge technologies will give us a solution to the
today's telecommunications problems.
I would like to invite reader response to this column (e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org). As always, please e-mail the
URL of this Publisher's Outlook to all those that you think it may help (www.tmcnet.com/articles/ctimag/1098/pubout.htm).
Perhaps by e-mailing this document liberally, you will help people out there like me from
being robbed by what seems a random and avaricious scheme of local long-distance telephony