Shakeout time is near in the long-distance telephone industry. You may choose your company -- there's help for casting your vote

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If you have a telephone, it's time to make a choice -- even if you don't want to. Where once there was just one company to provide long-distance phone service, there are now at least 40. Of those, perhaps 10 -- including that former monopoly, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) -- are waging a furious nationwide battle for the hearts and ears of telephone customers.

While the battle for ``equal access'' to all the long-distance carriers is already over in some parts of the country, it is just getting started in most other places and will become more intense in the next several months. The battlefield is a ``ballot'' that lets customers choose a new primary long-distance company or keep AT&T.

``Three-fourths of the country will get their ballots between now and next June,'' says Sam Simon, president of the Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), a private consumer group in Washington, D.C. ``And most of those will have them between now and the end of this year.'' Everyone is supposed to have a ballot by the end of 1986.

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As each telephone service area -- part of a city, a town, or a group of neighboring towns -- is equipped to handle equal access, telephone customers in that area will receive ballots from their local phone companies, as well as sales literature from AT&T and the other long-distance companies.

This will provide some, but not all, the information you'll need to select the best carrier for you. And even if you carefully compare all the companies and select what seems like the cheapest one today, it may not be the cheapest six months or a year from now, as rates continue to change.

``We're in the era of at least the annual long-distance checkup,'' Mr. Simon says. For small businesses and large companies, the checkup should be done more often. For an infrequent caller, with less than $10 a month in long-distance bills, annual comparisons should be enough.

For now, though, it's time to make that first choice.

Once you receive your ballot, you have 60 days to fill it in and return it. You may also be able to make your choice via a phone call. If you don't make a choice, a long-distance carrier will be assigned to you. This will be done on a proportional basis; if MCI received 10 percent of the business from those who did make a choice, and GTE's Sprint got 15 percent, AT&T got 30 percent, and so forth, any assignments would be based on these percentages in a service area.

If you see a box on your ballot marked ``none,'' don't check it off thinking it means no change. It means you don't want any long-distance service. So if you check it, you won't be able to make any long-distance calls.

After you select a company, you will be able to make your long-distance calls by simply dialing ``1,'' the area code, and the number. You could still get access to alternative carriers by using the longer codes, but for most people this will mean the days of 23-digit dialing will be over.

If you do not choose AT&T, you will not give up access to telephone operators. Even if you have another primary long-distance carrier, you can still dial ``0'' to summon a fire truck or police car or get help in other emergencies.

Having a non-AT&T carrier will not prevent you from using AT&T or any other carrier to make long-distance calls. It will probably cost a little more, but dialing a few extra digits will put you onto an AT&T line. This could be useful if connections on your new carrier are bad, or if new rates make your primary carrier more expensive. You can use AT&T while looking for a new one.

In this early stage for equal access, if you don't like your new carrier or you were assigned a carrier and wanted to stay with AT&T, you can switch without charge within three months before and six months after your area is completely converted. After that, a switch will cost $5.

The key factor in selecting a long-distance company should be the size of your phone bill and where you call. For now, frequent callers will probably save by switching from AT&T.

And if the distances are large, the savings will probably be larger, too.

``Most people make most of their calls to one or two places,'' says Robert Krughoff, president of Washington Consumer Checkbook, a nonprofit organization that will analyze past phone bills and tell you which carrier would have provided the cheapest service. Fees for this service range from $10 for someone with a $10 monthly long-distance bill; $25 for a bill that adds up to $30 or $40; and $75 for a $200 monthly bill. ``The fee for a business may be substantially higher,'' Mr. Krughoff says.

The address is Consumer Checkbook, 806 15th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20005. If you first call (202) 347-7283, you can get an idea how much it will cost to analyze your bill.

A less-personalized but cheaper source of information is Mr. Simon's TRAC. A stamped, self-addressed business envelope and $1 will get you a chart that compares charges from the major carriers, including AT&T, in 16 categories, including time of day, length of calls, places called, volume discounts, and frequency of long-distance calling. Rates will also be given for calls covering 100 and 3,000 miles. The chart is updated at least every month, Simon noted.

The address is Telecommunications Research and Action Center, PO Box 12038, Washington, D.C. 20005.

If you make credit card calls, do some comparing here, too. AT&T charges $1.05 per call; credit card fees at other companies range from less than 50 cents to $1 a call.

Also, while AT&T heavily promotes the fact that it reaches all over the world, the lists of reachable foreign countries at other carriers are growing. If a country you call frequently is on one of these lists, you may be in for big savings, since competition is heavy right now for this segment of the business.

If you have a question that would make a good subject for this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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