- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Bell Atlantic recently sent consumers a letter asking the following question: "Why did we simplify your Bell Atlantic phone bill?"

The question should have read: "Did we simplify your phone bill?"

The answer is an emphatic "No." The new phone bill is equally as obtuse as the old format and perhaps more so. All the nifty unidentified acronyms, such as "ELS," and "PIC," are still there, plus a new twist a tax-code category that lists some services as being both exempt and taxable at the same time.

About the best that can be said of the new phone bill is it is clear exactly how much more money consumers owe if they do not pay their bills on time.

Phone bill complexities can be blamed in part on the tireless efforts of federal regulators, who require that consumers get a full breakdown of the cost of services. However, phone companies also are eager to show consumers how many taxes they are required to pay taxes that are imposed at the federal, state and local levels.

Sometimes those taxes are called "charges," such as the pre-subscribed interexchange carrier charge, or PIC.

Happily, some of the charges are about to go away. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently approved a $3.2 billion reduction in access charges, the fees long-distance service providers pay to local phone companies to connect to local networks.

The rate reduction takes effect July 1 and should mean a savings of $50 per year for consumers who make no long-distance calls and $10 a year for those who make 30 minutes of long-distance calls a month. Other consumers will see lower bills of varying amounts, the FCC says.

Long-distance and local companies have long fought over access charges, which grew out of the 1984 breakup of AT&T.; The FCC designed the access rules to ensure that long-distance companies could get access to the local networks controlled by the newly created Baby Bells.

Long-distance providers complain that the access charges are far greater than the market merits. Local companies, with equal vehemence, maintain that the fees are needed to pay for federally mandated services that, by themselves, do not generate sufficient revenue. One example is the cost of providing service in rural areas.

The FCC began ordering a decrease in access fees in 1997, after Congress enacted a law revamping the telecommunications industry. The current restructuring of access charges is the largest to date. It took more than a year to craft the new rules, based on a proposal submitted by an industry coalition of long-distance and local companies including Bell Atlantic.

"The current structure of interstate access charges is irrational, and substantial revision of the commission's access charge rules is needed," according to FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, in a statement following the vote on the new rules.

Mr. Furchtgott-Roth believes the FCC needs to move more aggressively to eliminate government regulation of the industry, but the new rules are a "step in the right direction."

For consumers, the new rules come at a time when long-distance bills are increasing, according to the Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), a nonprofit group that monitors long-distance service prices.

"The cost of long-distance service has soared over the last six months," says Samuel A. Simon, chairman of TRAC's board of directors. "We hope that with this new system, long-distance carriers will now reduce not only their per-minute rates, but also all of the charges and fees for related services that have been skyrocketing the past six months."

The group recently published a survey that showed long-distance rates are 20 percent to 50 percent higher than they were a year ago. The companies promote low per-minute charges, but fees for directory assistance, calling cards and universal service fees have increased, according to the group's survey.

The biggest offenders are AT&T; and MCI Worldcom, says the group, which published the following rate comparisons:

• AT&T;'s Dial One Standard Night and Weekend User plan increased from $42.50 a month in December to $53.47 a month in May.

• MCI's 5 Cents Anytime Heavy Day User plan increased from $24.78 a month in December to $36.15 in May. (The group notes that MCI did not participate in the fee calculation.)

• Excel's Dime Deal Average Daily User plan increased from $9.28 a month in December to $11.28 in May.

TRAC offers a long-distance rate comparison service at its Web site: www.trac.org.

Have a question on work or family finances? Get in touch with Anne Veigle at 202/636-3014 or e-mail (evie1@infi.net).

More information

On line

• The Federal Communications Commission has information about the local-access decision and other matters related to competition among local and long-distance service providers. For information, see the Web site (www.fcc.gov). Contact the agency at 1919 M St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20554; or call 202/418-0190 or 888/225-5322.

• The Telecommunications Research and Action Center is a nonprofit organization devoted to helping consumers make choices about phone services. To request a publications list, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to TRAC, PO Box 27279, Washington, D.C. 20005. Web site: www.trac.org.

• Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based consumer group, publishes an annual survey of long-distance telephone costs. Web site: www.consumer-action.org. Address: Consumer Action, 717 Market St., Suite 310, San Francisco, Calif. 94103-2109; 415/777-9635.

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