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pubout.gif (6713 bytes) October 1998


rich.gif (5262 bytes) I've Been Robbed!
You Should Be Mad, Too

BY RICH TEHRANI


Go To Sidebars: Competition Restores Sanity
                          Internet Telephony Saves: Learn How At CTI™ EXPO

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.

THE SET-UP
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' service area.

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 telecommunications legalese).

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 toll dialing.

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 real."

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 to blame!

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 rtehrani@tmcnet.com). 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 charges.


Competition Restores Sanity

In my June 1998 Publisher's Outlook, "Searching for Sanity in Telecom Pricing," I shared my experience of paying ridiculous charges for various phone bills from a number of providers. Roaming charges were among those I despised, but I have found a simple solution - I changed providers.

I switched my service from Bell Atlantic to AT&T PCS. I pay no roaming charge and can buy minutes in blocks of 600 and up for an inexpensive per-minute rate. I have call waiting, inbound e-mail access of up 150 characters per e-mail, and a great Nokia telephone which acts as a pager - all included. On top of that, the Nokia phone has a much longer battery life than the Qualcomm I previously owned.

Of course, there is always a catch. The Fairfield County area in which I live still doesn't have PCS service available. The result is that many of the features (such as e-mail, paging, and caller ID) simply don't work in my area. Beyond that, cell phone number is a New York area code, so it's a long-distance call when callers in Connecticut need to reach me. These minor problems aside, my new PCS service far exceeds my former provider. To top it off, my bill has dropped from $450 to under $150 per month. Competition is good.


Internet Telephony Saves: Learn How At CTI™ EXPO

Unless we all become familiar with technologies like Internet telephony, we will constantly be held hostage by ILEC pricing schemes. Thankfully, there is a way out - come to CTI™ EXPO, learn to become your own Internet telephony phone company, or just put IP telephony to work for your company to save money now. If you are a developer, you must be aware of the latest developments in programming environments, such as TAPI 3.0.

We've made sure to pack our CTI™ EXPO conference program full of information that will enable anyone, from the novice end user to the expert developer or reseller, to broaden their knowledge of this field in a variety of ways. First, we have keynote speakers from both Natural MicroSystems and Dialogic will cover the topic of Internet telephony. Then, we have representatives from Lucent, VocalTec, Cisco, and Ascend speaking at a free roundtable sessions on the best way to implement Internet telephony - through a PBX interface, a router plug-in, or through a traditional gateway. We also have a free Learning Center that will focus on Internet telephony, and will be composed of six vendors who will objectively educate you on the technology behind Internet telephony. These learning centers were a popular attraction at our last CTI™ EXPO in Baltimore.

We also have assembled the most comprehensive conference program available at any trade show. The editors of CTI and Internet Telephony™ magazines, and the engineers of TMC™ Labs, poured over hundreds of topics and industry leaders to give you the best possible speakers available anywhere. TMC™'s conference programs adhere to the same high content and objectivity standards as our publications.

Leading-edge Internet telephony courses for CTI™ EXPO Fall '98 include:

  • IP Telephony: The Future Of Telecommunications.
  • IP-Based PBXs And ACDs: The More Things Change.
  • Testing IP Telephony Gateways.
  • How IP Telephony Saves Money For The Enterprise.
  • Voice Traffic's Special Challenges: Latency, Jitters, QoS.
  • Hardware Options: Routers, PBX And Gateways.
  • IP Telephony's Leading Edge: IP Fax.
  • Voice-Enabled Intranets.
  • IP Telephony: Wouldn't You Like To Be A Telco Too?
  • How IP Networks Support Multimedia Collaboration Services.
  • What An Internet Telephony Phone Bill Would Look Like.
  • Harnessing The Power Of SS7 For IP Telephony.
  • Deploy IP Fax And Eliminate Per Fax Charges.
  • IP Security Issues: Wiretapping, Encryption, And More.
  • Voice Traffic Over Data Networks.
  • IP Telephony Quality Issues: Reserving Bandwidth And Private Networks.
  • Developing Internet Telephony Applications Using Tools.

We hope to see you at CTI™ EXPO Fall '98, December 1-4, in San Jose, California. Please visit our Web site at www.ctiexpo.com.

 







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