The comparison of long-distance telephone services published in last week's Washington Business section was partially incorrect. A corrected version of the chart is in today's Washington Business, Page 5.
Washington-area consumers are awash in a sea of confusion as they try to choose a long-distance phone company in the aftermath of the Bell system breakup, according to consumer groups.
"Choosing a long-distance company is like doing a jigsaw puzzle with a blindfold on while they keep turning the table," said Pamela Gilbert, staff attorney of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).
With the area gradually converting to "equal access" -- a process that makes dialing long distance on alternative services as simple as using AT&T -- customers are being asked to choose from more than a dozen phone companies.
And it's not easy.
From US Telecom to Networkplus, the long-distance companies are barraging consumers with advertising touting lower rates and bonus discounts. But comparing the benefits of each company is time-consuming and complicated, consumer groups say. "People are starving for coherent information," Gilbert said.
"How can consumers benefit from competition when long-distance rates are so complicated that they can't figure out which service saves them money?" asked Gene Kimmelman, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America.
Critics say the choice of a long-distance company is difficult because, in addition to different rates, the companies offer widely varying special features, including volume and time-of-day discounts, and discounts on calls placed when traveling.
For example, if you make a $20 to $75 long-distance phone call between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. using GTE Sprint's service, you get a 3 percent discount. However, Sprint gives a 9 percent discount for a $20 to $75 phone call made between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m., and a 10 percent discount for the same call made after 11 p.m. or during a weekend.
The Tele-Consumer Hotline, jointly sponsored by Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), the Consumer Federation of America and the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co., distributes a "Residential Long-Distance Comparison Chart" and fact sheets to help explain the differences to consumers.
TRAC also publishes its own long-distance comparison chart, available for $1, and will provide consumers with a personalized, computerized comparison of their rates for a fee.
PIRG recently accused AT&T and Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. of misleading advertising that encourages customers to make a fast, uninformed decision without carefully exploring the rates and features of the various services.
"For most consumers, making a hasty decision means sticking with AT&T because that is the company with which they are most familiar," said Gilbert of PIRG.
AT&T has mailed notices to consumers across the country warning that "there are only a few days left . . . to choose a long-distance company," when, in fact, consumers still have six months to make their selections after they receive these notices and can choose a company any time after six months by paying $5 to $10 to their local phone company, Gilbert said.
"These notices are grossly misleading," she asserted. "AT&T is attempting to capitalize on the widespread confusion about the equal-access process with misleading information intended to induce consumers to make hasty, uninformed decisions.
AT&T has defended its mailings as "in no way deceptive or misleading to the public," and said in a letter to PIRG that its mailing is timed to reach customers during the latter stage of the initial balloting period.
Bell Atlantic Corp., the parent of Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., which serves the Washington region, sent a ballot in September to the majority of its millions of telephone subscribers, requiring them to "vote" for a primary long-distance carrier.
The primary carrier is the long-distance company that completes all long-distance calls a person makes from his home by dialing the area code and number. Customers can use other long-distance companies as "secondary carriers" by dialing additional numbers.
"AT&T doesn't inform consumers that, even if AT&T is not their primary carrier, they can still use the unique services of the company, such as unlimited international calling and operator assistance, simply by dialing 10288," Gilbert said.
One confusing aspect about the "balloting" is that sometimes consumers receive official ballots from their local phone company while at the same time receiving sign-up advertising from the long-distance companies aggressively fighting for a stake in the estimated $2 billion long-distance market in the area.
The result is that many consumers end up signing up with more than one company and may be assigned arbitrarily to one of the firms, according to Gilbert.
"Right now, the information in the ballots is adding to the confusion, instead of lessening it," said Gilbert, who added that the ballot encourages fast decisions and lists a deadline for signing up free of charge that is seven months earlier than the actual deadline. C&P said, however, that those are "unfair criticisms," because it is sending speakers to community groups to explain the balloting process, holding seminars, mailing explanations and helping to sponsor a consumer hotline.
Even after customers choose a long-distance service, problems abound, according to local consumer groups. Sometimes customers are connected to the wrong company; many complain that the switch from one company to another is taking too long.
"The most common consumer complaint is that they have to wait too long to get long-distance service," said Susan Katz, executive director of the Tele-Consumer hotline. "People may improperly fill out their ballot, or forget to make a choice, or they don't designate just one company or don't turn it in on time."
The Consumer Federation of America is calling on federal and state regulators to step in to help consumers who don't know where to turn for help.
"Consumers knew the transition to competition would be difficult, but they expected regulators to ease the burden by constructing a smooth transition from yesterday's world of one-stop shopping to today's avalanche of choices," CFA's Kimmelman said.