"Hello," a voice says, "please hold."
Seconds, minutes tick away. Sometimes a recorded voice says you're not disconnected. Sometimes you are.
Thank goodness it's not long-distance, you say to yourself, gamely prepared to outwait the bureaucrat or clerk on the other end who for all you know is filing her nails or talking about the big game Sunday.
Now suppose every telephone call you made was billed like long-distance, at a rate based on time of day, distance between the caller and recipient and length of time you talk -- or hold.
How long would you wait? How long could you afford to wait?
"It does have a chilling effect," state Sen. Clive L. DuVal (D-Fairfax) said, arguing against the growing use of so-called "local long-distance" charges instead of the traditional flat-rate service most residential users now buy.
DuVal, a longtime critic of high utility and telephone bills, this week helped win a pledge from Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Virginia that its effort to promote "local long-distance" or measured-rate service will not be at the expense of economy, flat-rate service now available to C&P's poorest customers.
Local measured service, or LMS, is currently an option offered in Virginia by C&P, which persuaded the State Corporation Commission in 1983 that LMS is an equitable way to charge for service based on costs to the telephone company.
LMS, now available in scattered, mostly rural communities, is scheduled to be available in Northern Virginia for the first time next year, in Arlington and Alexandria.
Company officials had indicated that LMS might, with SCC approval, replace the bottom line flat-rate service, but backed off after DuVal and others said they might seek legislation to block the move.
The company is not expected to give up on LMS, a leap into the electronic age that company officials insist will benefit many consumers in the aftermath of the breakup of AT&T into seven regional telephone companies.
A senior official for Bell Atlantic, C&P's parent company after the breakup, has said measured service "may be our number one objective."
But consumer advocates largely remain unconvinced.
"There's no earthly way the homeowner could tell what his or her monthly bill will be" using measured-rate service, DuVal said this week during a meeting of the Joint Study Committee on Telecommunications, chaired by Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-Alexandria).
Consumer groups in the District of Columbia have three times blocked LMS before the city's Public Service Commission.
In Maryland, LMS is available as an option. A move in that state's legislature to bar LMS died in committee after strong opposition from the telephone company.
Kory noted that more affluent telephone customers often buy added services, such as call-waiting and forwarding, which they could drop if bills get too high.
"Those in the lower income brackets would not have that flexibility," Kory said.
"The rich get rid of extras . . . , the poor cut down use," he said.
Others have charged that LMS would radically alter how Virginians and other citizens communicate with each other.
Mark L. Plotkin, a District of Columbia activist who has fought LMS in the city, noted that citizen groups would find it more costly to use telephones in such now-routine efforts to get people out to community meetings or zoning hearings.
"Our whole way of doing business could be changed," Plotkin said in an interview.
Van Landingham, who has served on the special Virginia legislative committee on telecommunications for three years, said Monday she hoped to get the General Assembly to approve extension of the committee for at least another year to monitor these and other changes in the rapidly changing industry.
This week's committee meeting might have helped.
After C&P lobbyist Sid Phillips promised his company would not seek to eliminate economy, flat-rate service for poorer customers, DuVal asked, "How long can we count on the company maintaining this position?"
There were a few laughs in the committee room.
"I can't guarantee forever," Phillips replied, as the committee room burst into even more laughter.