"Hello. We're checking to see how many phones you have."
"I have all the phones I need, thank you."
EVEN THOUGH the conversation is purely imaginary, it may not be uncommon. More and more Washingtonians will probably be getting such calls from the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company in the future. The phone company wants to know.
The phone company is in a bit of a fix because a year ago last October the Supreme Court let stand a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission allowing people to buy and install their own phones - phones they buy from independent stores rather than renting from the phone company. Consequently, the phone company no longer has a monopoly on the distribution of telephones people use to tap into the system. The phone company is losing its hold on the telephone instrument market fast, fast, fast. And the dollars involved ar big, big, big.
Ma Bell is trying to keep up by keeping track of who's installing their own phones - by testing the lines - and by charging the rates allowed under state laws. The company's advertising about doubled in 1978 to $22.5 million. Bell is pushing and expanding its own phone "centers," boutique outlets for walk-in customers who want to rent a company-owned phone or buy a telephone housing or shell - Bell keeps the ownership of the inside. The company warns rates may have to go up to offset losses in the rental business. But that doesn't seem to be stopping anyone from buying non-Bell phones.
"This is one of the biggest-gaining industries in the electronics business today," said Jerry Downes, manager of the Radio Shack store in Laurel, Md. Downes is opening an entire section of the store devoted exclusively to telephones - some 50 different models.
Indeed, it seems just about everyone is getting into the phone act - everyone from Dart Drugs to Saks Fifth Avenue. In its Aug. 14 issue, HFD Retailing Home Furnishings, an industry publication, showed figures estimating annual sales of telephones in 1978 at 1 million, and 2.5 million for 1979. It puts yearly sales at 10 million by 1982.
Not everywhere, however, are independent telephone sales skyrocketing. "There's not a steady sale per se," said Doug Munves, department manager at Bloomingdale's in Tyson's Corner.
"I thought once the FCC ruling went through there'd be people lining up at the door," said Jim Prettymore, owner of the Telephone Warehouse in the District. "That just didn't happen."
"People don't realize," said Roger Goldman at Neiman-Marcus in the District, "they can buy a phone and save money in the long run."
The savings, in fact, can pay for the phone you buy.
Explaining the phone company tariffs can get a little hairy. Even company representatives slipped trying to explain rates over the phone. In the course of more than one phone call to each area (the District, suburban Maryland and Virginia), different figures were given. On the third try, we asked for the "charges that would be added onto the regular bill for an extension phone." Here's what we got:
In the District, the rate for the simplest rotary-phone extension (a second phone, say, if you only have one now) is $1.10. The rate for a touchtone model is $1.75. Now, these are the charges added onto your present phone bill. If you want a princess phone, there is an additional cost of 70 cents a month; $1.25 for trimline. So if you rent a touchtone trimline phone, the added cost to your monthly bill is $3.
(You can't buy a phone from the phone company - ever. Even if you "buy" a Mickey Mouse designer phone, only the housing is actually yours. Ma Bell always keeps the rights to Mickey's insides.)
But if you buy a phone from a non-company dealer (the phone calls it "customer provided equipment"), no matter what kind, and use it in the District, the charge levied on your extention is only 35 cents. On the same touchtone trimline, then, you save $2.65 each month on rental and service you would otherwise pay the phone company. Such a phone, if you bought it for $69 at the Public Telephone Store (one of several non-company phone outlets in the District), would pay for itself in phone bill savings in about 26 months.
And the savings on more sophisticated equipment are even greater. In Maryland the phone comapany charges $8.10 to rent its "Touchomatic" 16-number automatic dialing phone (you press a button and the machine automatically dials a pre-programmed number), plus $1.82 for touchtone extension service (a total of $9.92). Since the monthly rate on an extension is 67 cents if you provide your own phone, the savings amount to $9.25 a month. You can buy such a machine for $129 at the Telephone Warehouse and it will pay for itself in less than 14 months.
And that's ignoring the $54 the phone company charges for ordering the "Touchomatic" and sending a man out to install it. Whenever you buy and put in your own phone you save the normal handling and installation charges.
The cahart below shows the monthly rates C&P charges on extensions using "customer provided equipment."(TABLE) (COLUMN)Rotary(COLUMN)Touchtone District(COLUMN)$00.35(COLUMN).35 Maryland(COLUMN) .67(COLUMN).67 Virginia(COLUMN).70(COLUMN).70(END TABLE)
(The phone company likes to think of its charges for "customer-provided equipment" in terms of "credits." The monthly bill shows the normal rate in one column and another amount in the credit column. We have given the balance amount.)
Prettymore said one reason people buy their own phones is that they are fed up with the phone company. "The phone company is not very popular," he said. "They think the phone company has been ripping them off for years. They want to buy a phone because they don't want anything more to do with it (the company)."
But under FCC regulations, you have not divorced yourself from the phone company even though you have your own phone. The phone company is fighting tooth and nail to put regulation back in the states' purview (where, it is believed, government is more conservative and will lean toward laissezfaire ) and to have at least one company phone required in each home.
As it stands now, said Bill von Alven, an FCC spokesman, you are required to notify the phoone company when you install your own phone. The company is allowed to levy a tariff on any extensions you install, is permitted to test your lines to find phones you may have purchased on your own and can discontinue service if you refuse to pay the phone company's rate.
"The tariffs are quasi-law," von Alven said. "Not paying them would be like breaking a contract with the phone company. They can discontinue service until you comply."
Some area dealers say as many as half the people maybuy a phone don't notify the phone company. "There are a great number of people who don't - whether I tell them to do it or not," said Don Moody, manager of The Public Telephone Store on L Street.
The phone company can sniff out an unauthorized phone by calling your number and listening with electronic gear to see how many are ringing (von Alven said more sophisticated equipment is being developed to deal with phones that are sold - and they are sold in area stores - without bells).
"If they test the phones and find more phones than are billed for," said Linda Catloth, a C&P representative in the District, "then the should try to reach you by phone or send a letter."
You do not have to give entry to your abode to anyone who shows up mysteriously saying, "We've come to check how many phones you have."
The phone company wants to know two things: the FCC registration number on the phone and the "ringer equivalence" number.
Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling in October 1977, the FCC started its registration program. By July 1, 1979, all phones for installation must be registered by the manufacturer with the federal government. About 200 phone models, von Alven said, have already been registered. Another 200 were "grandfathered." They were already in use before the registration program started.
If the phone company calls and you do not find an FCC number on the bottom of the phone, von Alven said it is probably a "grandfathered" phone, in which case you give the make and model number.
The ringer equivalence number, also on the bottom of the phone, indicates how much voltage the phone uses when rings. (Some more about that later.)
Once you report your registered or "grandfathered" telephone, the phone company will begin billing you for it.
The phones you can buy from area dealers range anywhere from $18 for the simplest black desk model (even less for reconditioned hardware) to a designer phone at the Radio Shack that goes for $2,500. It is encased in silver and engraved by Italian silversmith, with a solid walnut handgrip and silk cord. The phone is signed by the artist and, of course, no two are alike.
Saks has six models ranging from $100 to $240 - most in transparent lucite so you can see the works; Public Telephone Stores, with four locations in the area, carry about 80 different styles - one with 18-karat gold plating in a solid onyx chest that weighs 40 pounds; Sears Roebuck & Co. lists for four models in its catalogue; Telephone Warehouse claims 200 different models - from antique crankers to BOnnie and Clyde candlesticks to a 4-foot-high pedestal phone to an original phone booth. In other words, there is a phone made for just about every bent of mind.
If you do buy a new phone, authorities suggest watching out for a few things:
Who you buy it from can make a difference. In a spot check of area stores we found some salespersons who knew literally nothing about FCC regulations and rrquirements. "I don't think that's any of our business," said one department manager at a well-known store. "I don't know how they work that," said another. Whoever you buy from should be able to give you all the information you need so you do not run afoul of the phone company, including whether the phone is "grandfathered" or FCC-registered and what the ringer equivalence number is.
Be sure the total ringer equivalence number of all your phones does not exceed the amount your line can handle, lest the phones poop out and stop ringing. Von Vlven said most lines can handle a load of 5, but some imported phones carry an equivalence number of 3.4 (add two more phones with 1.0 or more and you exceed 5 already).
Subscribe to touchtone service, if you only have rotary now, before you buy a touchtone phone. A rotary phone will work off a touchtone line but not vice versa.
The new phones come with a miniature plug. If you buy a new phone but still have the old, four-pronged jack, (or if you buy an old phone with the four-pronged plug and have a new jack), you can buy adaptors at many phone stores.
You must call C&P to install new jacks. The charge is $16 to $17.
Beware of salespersons who give the "you-save-$15-a-month" pitch. They usually know little about phone rates and even less about regulations.
Look for companies that guarantee parts and service and on the phones they sell. You become responsible for phone maintenance. Von Alven suggests keeping at least one company phone so C&P is still responsible for keeping your service going.
For more information on buying your own phone and to find out whether the phone you want (or the one you already bought) is "grandfathered" or FCC-registered, call your phone company, or the FCC at 632-6440.