Australians Welcome Phone Competition

AUSTRALIANS are basking in the great service and low rates they are getting as two phone companies war over their hearts, minds, ... and ears.

As part of long-term micro-economic reforms in many sectors, the Australian government decided to introduce competition to Telecom, its telecommunications monopoly. In 1991, Optus - a consortium 51 percent Australian, 49 percent American and British - was awarded a license.

Since then, Telecom and Optus have been outdoing each other in advertising and better deals. A 10-minute Optus call to the United States is now $12.46 (Australian; US$8.50) peak, $9.46 off-peak. Telecom, a year ago, was charging $2 more.

Telecom also has been slashing prices and offering customers a dizzying array of discount plans.

But the real advantage, residents say, is the dramatically improved service from Telecom, which still supplies the equipment, wiring, and repair service. Mention Telecom to almost any Australian and they will tell a horror story about inefficiency, delays, mispublished business phone numbers, operators who hang up, and other signs of lack of concern for the customer.`S

OME disillusioned people are glad to see competition coming,'' says suburbanite Marion Harding. ``But we've seen a great improvement in service over recent years.''

``Technically, it's been a world-leading company, the way we've built a network around a sparsely populated country. Where we've let customers down is on marketing and custom service.... We will get punished for the sense of the past - people have long memories. But ... we've improved. And what it's all about is what kind of service you get today,'' says Tim Lloyd-George, a Telecom spokesman. The ``new'' Telecom offers guarantees and stricter appointment scheduling.

Optus is banking on those disgruntled customers with long memories. With its ``Yes'' campaign, it is positioning itself as the company of good service. ``It's not only an ad campaign but a corporate watchword,'' says Greg Ellevsen, spokesman. ``It symbolizes a company that can help you out. It's a can-do approach.''

Telecom's ads say the company is 100 percent Australian owned and ``keeps your money in Australia.'' That makes a strong appeal in this time of recession and increasing foreign ownership. Optus promotes itself as an inclusive and multicultural company.

As part of the $800 million Optus license, the government decreed that subscribers would eventually choose a company for domestic and international long-distance phone calls.

Canberra was the first city to get the ballot, in July. Optus got 11 percent of the vote and more than 50 percent of households voted. Anyone who does not vote will remain a Telecom subscriber.

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