The problem with monopolies: They don't like to cut prices.
That's why consumers have seen local phone bills inch steadily upward - from an average $11.58 a month in 1984 to $19.58 in 1996.
That's not too bad, counting inflation. But consider this: During the same period, long-distance rates have come down by a third to a half.
That's why it pays to seek out a competing local phone carrier - if you can find one.
But while some 160 have sprung up in the past two years, thanks to a federal law deregulating the industry, most serve businesses rather than consumers.
So you have to dig a little:
* Keep alert for ads. If a competitive carrier is operating in your area, it'll get the word out.
* Check the telephone companies listed in the Yellow Pages.
* Cruise the Internet. Yahoo! maintains a hodge-podge listing (www.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/Companies/Telecommunications/Local_Exchange_Carriers).
* Be patient. "It took a long time for those long-distance [firms] to get established," says Jim Crawford, spokesman for the Association for Local Telecommunications Services, a Washington-based trade group representing new local carriers. "We're a young industry. It's going to take a couple years."
Some of the bigger local phone competitors offering residential service include Teleport Communications Group (New York City, areas of Texas and California - 800-991-4824), USN Communications (Midwest/Northeast: 888-876-9116), McLeodUSA (Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, North/South Dakota, Wisconsin: 888-234-6673), RCN (New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Allentown, Pa.: 800-263-1911).