The Checkout

Talk Less and Pay More

Remember the long-distance phone wars of the early 1990s? When your phone rang nearly every day with an offer from MCI, Sprint or AT&T to get you to switch carriers?

All that competition was supposed to bring down phone rates. But consumer advocacy group Teletruth says if you believe that, you're mistaken.

Teletruth's analysis of phone rates shows that since 2000 long-distance charges for AT&T have gone up 237 percent for so-called "low-volume users" -- people who make up to 15 minutes of long distance calls a month. About 30 percent of American customers qualify as low-volume; many of them are seniors living on fixed incomes. As a result, Teletruth estimated that at least 10 to 15 million elderly and other low-volume users, and another 10 to 15 million customers have been shortchanged by phone companies.

Long-distance carriers have done this by imposing all kinds of fees on low-volume callers to make up for the fact that those folks aren't burning up the long-distance phone lines. The fees come with lovely names such as a "minimum usage fee," "a plan fee," "a cost recovery fee," "an in-state connection fee," and "a single bill fee."

Teletruth also goes after AT&T for not sticking to a promise made in 2000 to the Federal Communication Commission to lower long-distance rates by removing plan fees and minimums and to lower the basic service rate to 19 cents per minute. The basic rate is now 120 percent higher at 42 cents.

I found the report as dismaying as the next consumer. But I have to say, I also thought the focus on long-distance rates sort of quaint. I mean, I almost long for the days when all I paid for was local and long-distance phone service. Now, my household's telecom costs per month include local, long distance, high-speed cable modem and cellphone services. And I don't even subscribe to a data plan for my phone.

With all those bills to read through, it's no wonder people don't catch all the fees that get tacked on.

If you could charge companies fees the way they charge us, what would you charge them for?

I vote for a "sanity recovery fee" and a "minimum aggravation fee."

By Annys Shin |  January 24, 2007; 9:36 AM ET Consumer News
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What percentage of people still have a landline long distance company? Most people I know use cellphones for long distance calling where its usually free as part of a plan.

Posted by: dgc | January 24, 2007 9:50 AM

I don't know why folks don't ditch the big boys and their plans and go with other services for long distance. I use Total Call International; my long distance bill for last month was $2.51 for 50.7 minutes. If I don't make any LD calls in a month=no charge. Do some research, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Posted by: tom | January 24, 2007 10:01 AM

Regulator Tax.

Not everyone who does not have a cell phone, does not think VOIP is all that and who does not call long distance that much is 80 years old, folks. I eschew a cell phone and a blackberry as symbols of new age slavery. People who use them tend to be annoying too.

As a long distance user who usually comes in well under 100 minutes a month, my long distance bills have been going up. I had to switch from AT&T to Verizon because AT&T just got crazy with fees and increases. Then Verizon increased the bill and added a $2 minimum. Whenever I check around, long distance rates for someone like me have gone way up and there is no longer anything I would call competition. The pressure is to get an unlimited plan but that does not yet make economic sense at my calling level.

I think there should be a regulator tax. By that I mean we get to tax the FCC and the state equivalent. Whenever I have complained, they do nothing about the increases and say they thought bills were coming down. And they let providers have the most convoluted bills imaginable. The regulators should say, one bill, one fixed price. Don't these people have phones.

Also, on bundles, the bundles usually do not save more than $6 (adjusted) and usually require you to pick one service that is sub-optimal, so bundling should be discouraged. Consumers should be able to go with best of breed.

Posted by: Low User | January 24, 2007 10:10 AM


That sounds like a good plan. Is there a good place to start research long distance carriers? Your company Total Call International is one I've never heard of, so how would I find out them?

Posted by: Annoyed | January 24, 2007 10:14 AM

djc - call me crazy, but cellphones are inherently less reliable than landlines - batteries die, people forget to charge them, they get lost, and they get dropped and broken. Not to mention natural phenomena that can cause wireless communications to go down when you might need a phone the most -hurricanes, earthquakes, solar flares, etc. In those cases, some that rely on cellphones may find themselves scrambling around in the dark trying to find their phone that is low on batteries and can't be recharged b/c the power is out. Landlines aren't foolproof, but they often work even when the lights go down.

Posted by: Rosslyn | January 24, 2007 11:42 AM

Don't think these fees apply only to Long Distance - which I dropped from my land line years ago.

Verizon has this thing called "Local Long Distance" which is when you call the county next to you, and it is not part of your "local" calling area. Verizon is now charging to keep this service.

The only reasons I keep the land line around is for use as an emergancy dial up internet connection, and when the power goes out.

Posted by: Liz | January 24, 2007 12:06 PM

As I have stated in the past I would charge them a fee for every minute spent on the phone wasting my time trying to fix an error! Cost Recovery Fees should work both ways. Base it off each person's salary and calculate how much they are worth a minute, then pay them for wasting their precious time on hold, being transferred, dropped, and lied to! I can guarantee they would either shape up real quick or go out of business. If it affected their bottom dollar they would start caring about people.

I am all for an anguish fee too! Not only should we be reimbursed for our time, but compensated for putting up with people who play games and lie- telling us a problem was fixed or will be resolved when it really will not- making you go back and spend even more time and energy retracing your steps and explaining everything all over again!

Posted by: Chris | January 24, 2007 12:16 PM

I too switched my landline long-distance service from AT&T to Verizon a couple years ago, as I make very few LD calls and AT&T kept raising the minimum. I signed up for the Verizon service from their website and I don't believe there were any extra fees then or now, but I should probably check on that again. I have a Verizon pay-as-you-go cellphone and usually make LD calls with that now.

Posted by: Cosmo | January 24, 2007 12:56 PM

Calling cards, in my experience, are usually a much better deal. You can use them anywhere, there are some with very good rates, and they don't have any taxes tacked on (as far as I know). It's a little less convenient since you can't just pick up the phone and call, but emergency calls are local and free anyway, so there's really no need to pay a lot extra to have a plan just to have the convenience of dialing 1.

I have VoIP now because where I live, there are seven different area codes within a 120-mile radius, and you have to pay long distance for all of them except your own. I rarely call my own area code, so paying one flat rate a month (even with a couple extra bucks in miscellaneous taxes and fees) is so much cheaper than paying long-distance fees for almost every call.

Posted by: R | January 24, 2007 1:03 PM

A Google search brought up this web site

Posted by: Ted | January 24, 2007 1:11 PM

For uncensored news please bookmark:

Observations on Washington-style democracy

By Barry Grey in Washington, D.C.
24 January 2007

Political life in the US capital is increasingly an exercise in deceit and self-delusion. It does not take long for an objective observer to discern that behind the traditional forms of parliamentary democracy--congressional debates, floor votes, hearings, etc.--the machinery of a presidential dictatorship is being consolidated and already operating in key areas of policy, both foreign and domestic.

The Bush administration has successfully asserted, due largely to the compliance of a complicit and cowardly Democratic Party and a corrupt media, a degree of unchecked and unaccountable power that is unprecedented in US history. On the basis of the pseudo-constitutional theory of the "unitary executive" and the supposed war-time powers of the commander-in-chief (in the undeclared, unlimited and phony "war on terror"), the right-wing clique around the White House routinely violates constitutional norms and legal statues, snubs Congress and takes actions that flagrantly violate the democratic rights of the American people.

All those involved--administration officials, judges, congressmen, the Washington press corps--are well aware of the advanced state of decay of traditional democratic procedures and the buildup of police-state forms of rule. Yet the outer trappings of parliamentary process for the most part continue, by mutual consent of all involved, in what amounts to a democratic Potemkin Village, maintained in part to keep the people in the dark about the imperiled state of their democratic rights.

There are internal debates and conflicts, which can become heated at times, about the wisdom, legality and propriety of the administration's more brazen assertions of absolute power, but such disputes are never allowed to resonate in any significant way beyond the narrow confines of the Washington establishment.

Among themselves, in their offices, clubs and watering holes, the denizens of the capital engage in gallows humor about latest administration outrage against democratic norms and the constitutional principle of "checks and balances" between coequal branches of government. But since they all have a stake in maintaining the existing two-party political monopoly, through which the financial-corporate elite asserts its basic interests, and they all share an allegiance to American capitalism and its imperialist aims around the world, they continue to play the game as though nothing much had changed.

Last Thursday's appearance by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee provided the latest example of administration stonewalling and contempt for Congress and the impotence of the legislators.

The day before the hearing, Gonzales notified the committee that the administration had obtained authorization from one anonymous member of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court to continue its National Security Agency program of electronic surveillance of Americans' phone calls and e-mails. It was patently obvious that this was a maneuver to provide a judicial fig leaf for an illegal and unconstitutional invasion of privacy, close down court challenges to the program, and provide Bush and other administration officials with legal cover in the event of future criminal action against them.

At the Senate hearing, Gonzales flatly refused to answer questions from committee members about the content of the authorization granted by the unnamed FISA judge or any aspect of the ongoing domestic spying program.

For the rest please go to:

Posted by: che | January 24, 2007 1:13 PM

I also use calling cards. Haven't used my landline long-distance in more than 3 years. The ones from WalMart are cheap -- my mom gave me a 1000 minute card more than one year ago and I still haven't used it up. You can program the toll-free number and your PIN into your phone so you only have to touch one number, and then dial the number you're calling. No hassle. I sometimes use my cell phone but the reception in my home is tricky so I prefer the landline connection there.

Posted by: Julie | January 24, 2007 1:22 PM

Switched to Vonage and haven't looked back. Very cheap, long distance included. People need to think for themselves and find a solution that works for them.

Posted by: BDTLR, VA | January 24, 2007 2:28 PM

Here's another vote for calling cards. It's 3 cents a minute and punching in all those numbers isn't that difficult. I've been using them for several years. I buy them at Costco.

Posted by: rockville | January 24, 2007 3:49 PM

Why don't folks use the prepaid AT&T calling cards. It costs 3.9cents a minute. You only use what you want.

Posted by: ATT | January 24, 2007 4:01 PM

I agree--if you're paying more you're not a savvy customer. There are plenty of ways to get much cheaper calling: cell phones, calling cards, resellers. I use Bigredwire, and calls are about 3c/minute, no minimum. It's perfect in conjunction with a cellphone, since it's available but rarely used.

To answer the question posed, definitely some sort of billing error fee. If I call with a billing error that I'm correct about, they should pay $10-15 as a bonus. Of course, that would make them unwilling to correct any error!

Posted by: ah | January 24, 2007 4:59 PM

A "shunting government-imposed taxes for conducting you business onto your customers" fee!! The government programs cost recovery fee imposed by phone companies is one of my pet peeves. Business taxes should be part of the cost of doing business, not passed on to be paid by customers. If I could pass my income taxes or property taxes onto my clients, I'd go out of business fast. So why are these behemoths, with profits out the wazoo, allowed to pass their taxes onto us?


I have no phone service on my blackberry (I'm deaf) and only use flat fee unlimited data services. Yet, my phone bill creeps up month by month. Why? Because of the programs cost recovery fees and universal provider fees and "we hate our customers" fees that keep increasing by a cent or two per week. Ridiculous!

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | January 25, 2007 12:07 AM

If you could charge companies fees the way they charge us, what would you charge them for?

Lets charge then a "consumer over-charge fee" a "federal voters compensation" fee and a "free from bad service fee"

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | January 25, 2007 6:57 AM

Teletruth isn't quite telling the truth here. So what if AT&T's charges have gone up? Is anyone forced to use AT&T for long distance. Anyone who is upset by AT&T's charges can easily switch to another company. There are a variety of smaller companies that offer much better prices than AT&T and Verizon.

Why do you give a biased advocacy group like Teletruth any mention? They are clearly dishonest and pushing an agenda.

Posted by: MK | January 25, 2007 10:09 AM

So, do you think if I drafted up a bill with some of these fees, and sent it in, that the telecom company billing department would bite? Hahaha. Worth a shot perhaps...

Posted by: Chris | January 25, 2007 10:44 AM

First, I make almost no long distance calls. I was with AT&T only for the sole purpose that IF I made a long distance call, then it would be billed by AT&T. There was no monthly fees at all, you only got billed if you made a call.

But around November 2006, AT&T starting sending me a bill for $18.00 a month for long distance. When I called I was told that a flyer was sent out in March. I did not receive the flyer. When I became annoyed about being billed for LD that I never use, the rep. said to me "too bad" we are deregulated.

After 3 months I finally got this cancelled. To be told that we are "deregulated" so too bad was astounding. I no longer use AT&T.

Posted by: Patricia Kay | January 25, 2007 10:54 AM

I vote for a per-minute "consultation" fee, to compensate for every minute that I have to deal with an inept, non-English speaking customer service rep. Rate to be doubled for every minute I have to listen to Muzak while waiting.

(I have nothing against those for whom English is not a first language. I do find the language barrier frustrating.)

Posted by: Anonymous | January 25, 2007 11:47 AM

What would I charge them for? simple - the use of my name.

Posted by: S L | January 25, 2007 1:31 PM

How about the "time-wasted-listening-to-menu-options-when-all-I-really-want-is-to-talk-to-a-representative-because-I-have-a-problem" fee...

Posted by: LJ | January 25, 2007 3:11 PM

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