Worried about making the "right choice" of a long distance service? Has Cliff Robertson finally convinced you that the only way to get operator-assisted calling is by selecting AT&T for easy dialing?

Are you afraid that if you make a mistake and pick "the wrong" service, your friends and relatives in distant cities will never be able to reach you?

Welcome to the confused and confusing new world of long distance telephone service. These and other myths about long distance calling in this new era of "equal access" and "presubscription" have added considerably to the consumer confusion and frustration stemming from the break-up of AT&T 2 1/2 years ago.

Perhaps the best way to make sense of the long distance mess is to understand a little about the basic structural changes in long distance service. With just a smidgen of technical knowledge, you will be better equipped to ferret through the enormous amount of disinformation, myths and gobbledygook that characterize the information environment in long distance calling.

Most importantly, you will begin to know and understand things the long distance companies hope you won't. The New Order

There is a new long distance order in the United States, which isn't just a matter of a few new companies; we have had competition in long distance for over a decade. It isn't just the breakup or transfer of responsibility for local service from AT&T to the new regional phone companies.

Rather, there has been a basic change in the way long distance telephone service reaches your home. Consequently, there is an entire new way in which long distance is offered, marketed and ultimately used.

Originally, long distance telephone service could be used only by using an AT&T operator, located in or near your home town. It was necessary to dial "O" to make a long distance call. The operator would "place" the call for you over AT&T's long lines.

With the advent of more sophisticated equipment, direct dialing was implemented. Yet, even with this new technology, all the calls were carried by AT&T, over the AT&T network.

Since both the long distance part of the system (AT&T Long Lines) and the local part (AT&T Local Operating Companies), were owned by one company, the long distance service was hooked up directly into the local company. (Called "trunk side" connection for the teckies out there), this direct hook-up was what made all the familiar long distance services possible, such as: 10-digit long distance direct-dialing (AC + number); call supervision billing (you're charged only if call is completed); high quality voice lines; operator credit for wrong numbers; operator-assisted calling.

The new companies, such as MCI, that wanted to compete with AT&T for long distance service found that they were treated as interlopers and strangers by AT&T's local companies. MCI could build all the microwave towers it wanted between cities; the problem was getting hooked into the local system. MCI's solution was to order local phone service like a regular consumer, but hook the line into computers, which then switched the calls into their long distance network and carried them to distant cities. Similarly, MCI would take incoming calls from its network and in effect dial a local number, just as you do.

This "line side" type of connection had a lot of drawbacks compared to AT&T's trunk side, such as: 23- or 24-digit dialing, noisy lines, no call supervision, increased costs because of local service charges, no operator assistance.

When AT&T was ordered to divest its local companies, a key element of the divestiture was to assure that all long distance companies had the same opportunity for the most favorable direct, trunk-side connection to the local phone company. And Judge Harold Greene, who presided over the break-up litigation, included in his final order a timetable of three years for all local phone company exchanges to be switched over to the new system. In other words, any company was entitled to local company access equal to AT&T's. Hence the term "equal access."

But which equal-access company will be hooked into your home? The answer, of course, is that you get to select the one to serve your home through "easy dialing." But you will also be able to use "code dialing," simply a more convenient way to use a second, third or fourth long distance company.

For example, if you pick MCI as your easy dialing long distance company, you can also use AT&T with code dialing (simply dial "10ATT," area code and number). Or, if you keep AT&T as your easy dialing company, you can sign up with another company, say SBS Skyline, and use them by dialing "10888" (SBS' code), area code and number.

Finally, even in the new order, consumers will still be able to use 23-digit dialing to reach long distance companies. While a few smaller long distance companies may not qualify for equal access -- and thus be reachable only through 23-digit dialing -- most long distance companies will have 23-digit dialing only for calls made by customers away from their homes or living in remote rural areas. Eventually, the 23-digit dialing system will disappear.

Everything crystal clear now? No? The point is not to fret too much over the significance of your decision. You can always use another company -- including AT&T -- through code dialing. And you can always change (for a $5 fee) the company you select as your easy dialing carrier.

But which, you persist, easy-dialing long distance company should I select in the first place? The goal, of course, is to identify the one company that is the least expensive to use in a typical month, and which offers the features and quality of service considered necessary. Long-Form Method

First, determine how many calls you make in a typical month. You can do this by counting the number of calls made over a three month period and divide the total by three. Suppose for this example the number is 10.

Second, pick out 10 calls from your bill that are representative of your actual calling habits. If you call, as most people do, one or two places every week, use those calls.

Third, use the time of day and the length of the call that are typical of when and how long you actually talk.

Once you have compiled this typical bill, call the different long distance companies you may want to use and ask them to tell you how much it would cost to make your sample calls over their system. You can reach the different companies by calling the number, usually a toll-free 800 number, listed on the ballot the local company sends you.

One very important factor to consider, when you begin your comparisons, is whether you qualify for volume discounts. Most long distance services discount monthly bills between 5 and 20 percent; the more you call the greater the discount. You also need to consider any other costs you usually incur and compare for them. Rates for long distance information, for example, vary widely.

The second factor for comparison is the various features offered by the long distance services. Currently many of the features offered are geared to the business user. But there are some features that could be important to residential consumers, such as whether:

*the company has a travel feature that permits you to use the service while traveling away from home.

*you can use the service readily from pay phones.

*the company offers access to long distance information.

*you can call to all the places you want to reach, including overseas.

Information on features is available from the companies and from comparison charts offered by various consumer groups.

Quality of a long distance service isn't just the sound of the voices that are carried over their lines, although that is very important. It also includes such factors as how easy it is to reach the company in case of problems, clarity and accuracy of the monthly bill and whether your calls can be completed at the time you want to make them.

Although the equal access process will improve the sound quality of many of the companies, there still will be differences between companies. Can both parties hear each other well on most calls? Is there an echo or time delay on many calls? Are calls completed and connected regularly?

The companies tend to have different reputations in different communities. Company A can be strong in one city, but weak in another. Try and find out the reputation of a company you plan to use by talking with customers who now use the service. Shortcut Method

You have better things to do than spend five hours picking a long distance company, especially since your monthly long distance bill isn't much over $10 a month? According to AT&T statistics, most residential consumers spend less than $10 a month on long distance.

The shortcut method: Simply sign up for any three companies, try them out one at a time over a three month period, and then select the one that you liked the best for easy dialing. And you may end up wanting to keep accounts open with the other two for use by code dialing. (Circuits may be jammed over a holiday, or you know, for example, that LD rates to Chicago are cheaper with Company X than your own.)

If you are a low volume user, you need to make sure that none of the three companies you select has a monthly fee or minimum usage requirement. But there are no cancellation charges for any of the companies. Or Let George Do It

The need to make a choice of long distance companies arises when you receive a ballot in the mail from the local telephone company. (Or, when you move into an area that already has easy dialing.) The ballot will tell you that you have about three months to make a selection. Those who don't select a company will have one assigned to them on a random basis. The process is called allocation.

So, stick your head in the sand, pretend nothing is happening and remember, you can always change later.

And, oh yes, no matter which one you select -- or are assigned -- you can always be reached by others calling you no matter what system they use.