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Once upon a time, life was simple. There was Ma Bell, and Ma Bell ruled. She provided equipment, access, and long-distance service, and once a month she sent us a bill to pay. Alas and forsooth, modern life has progressed well beyond that simple state of affairs and has become far more complex.
In a communications age that has given us the Internet and almost instantaneous contact around the globe, few processes have become more complicated (at least on this side of the Atlantic) than the process for how phone companies interact. Heck, forget the global network here! Few things are more complicated than how telecom companies interact within my own home. For us, AT&T is one of three companies that play a vital role in making it all work.
Before I tell you about what AT&T does for us and my opinion of how well they do it, let me describe the telecom facts of our household--facts that, in all likelihood, are less than unique.
****OUR TELECOM REALITY***********
We are a household of two "maturing" adults. To service that household, we have four phone lines (two for our residential use and two serving my home-based business office). Two of these lines are dedicated voice lines--one for the home and one for the home office. The other two are dedicated data lines--one for my personal computer (which does double duty for the fax machine) and, yet again, one for the home office computer, including DSL access. We also have two cell phones, one for each of us, naturally. The cell phones are required for business use, and they are the most expensive factor in our telecom equation.
To service our new telecom reality, we pay bills to three different companies. One, our local provider, ensures our access to the overall telephone network. We pay this company a flat fee each month for the use of each of our four "traditional" phone lines--what would once have been called land-based lines, though I don't think that term has meaning any longer. In return for the rather tidy sum they charge, we receive "access" to the telephone network and they make sure our lines stay in order--at least the lines beyond the walls of our house. (We are responsible for maintaining the inside lines.) We also pay for caller ID on our home voice line, voice mail on my business voice line, and DSL service on my business data line. The second company, AT&T, provides our long-distance service for all four of these lines, including a strange creation known as local long-distance (more about AT&T later). The third company provides all aspects of our cellular service. Not one of these three companies provides us with our end-user equipment--that is, the phones themselves. We have purchased each of our many telephones separately, and we seem to replace one or another of these devices at the rate of about one per year. All in all, our telecom charges generally range between $300 and $600 per month--virtually never lower, but higher more often than we'd like. (Note that business charges are a big part of this total. These are not simply residential charges.)
****THE AT&T ROLE***********
Within this framework, AT&T, our long-distance provider, is probably the least troublesome of the companies we deal with. Least troublesome, however, is not to be understood as trouble free. Each of the four lines being used in our home has its own long-distance billing plan, and AT&T is the author and arbiter of how those plans do or do not work. Creating an overall scheme of long-distance changes has required a careful examination of pluses and minuses. Moreover, it has required a good deal of time and aggravation. Consumers are warned to keep the old maxim of "buyer beware" firmly in mind--if one isn't very careful, one gets thoroughly soaked with high charges.
~~~~The Data Lines~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The two easiest elements of our AT&T billing plan are the data lines. These lines almost exclusively use either local or toll-free numbers, so the long-distance use rates for each of these lines are highest and the monthly long-distance access fees are lowest--the fees on both counts being higher for the business line.
~~~~The Business Voice Line~~~~~~~~~~~
The rate structure for the business voice line is fairly simple. For a relatively modest standard monthly fee, I have a long-distance usage rate of about 7 cents per minute. Getting this simple plan, however, took months of false moves and re-negotiations. The business lines came into the home long after we were set up with our residential service, and I mistakenly assumed that because I had taken the trouble to get the best-available rates on my residential line, my preferences would automatically follow me to the new business lines. I was wrong, oh so wrong.
When my first phone bill arrived for the business lines, my relatively modest use had accumulated charges of over $600 for less than one month of service--all billed at the rate of 45 cents per minute and all billed through my local provider, not directly through AT&T. A flurry of calls to customer service and conferences between my local provider and AT&T, plus some carefully worked-out adjustments and credits, resulted in my current arrangement. (It was at this point that the billing for the two business lines was separated into two different plans.) It took over 6 months before the credits all cleared. In the meantime, I had to deal with both my local provider and AT&T on a monthly basis. Despite the protests on record regarding my bill, both companies persisted in issuing periodic threats to disconnect my business lines for non-payment of the contested charges. It was an ongoing nightmare--well, if not a nightmare, it was bothersome and annoying. Once resolved, however, my service and my billing for AT&T long-distance has been beyond reproach, and my long-distance bill for the voice line has rarely exceeded $30 per month.
Moral Of This Particular Story: Be sure to ask whether you are getting the best rate available for the type of line being used. Unless you say otherwise, AT&T will assume that you prefer to pay the very highest rates going for the pleasure of their service.
~~~~The Residential Voice Line~~~~~~~~~~~
The residential voice line has seen the most changes. As long-distance rates declined and new plans evolved, it has been modified as required. The current plan calls for a truly modest standard charge, plus two well-chosen options. For $19.95 per month, we subscribe to AT&T Unlimited. This plan allows us to make toll-free calls to anyone within the service area (roughly, the continental United States) as long as the number being called also subscribes to an AT&T plan. (Note that AT&T Unlimited is not available for business lines.) For $2.99 per month, we also subscribe to AT&T International, which allows us to make international calls at a much-reduced rate. Our calls to the UK and Ireland, for example, cost 10 cents per minute, as compared with charges in excess of $1 per minute paid before we signed up. Even if we made only two or three calls to the UK per year, the plan would pay for itself. We are billed 5 cents per minute for "domestic" long-distance calls to numbers that are not on an AT&T plan.
Moral Of This Story: The right plan for any residential user is likely to change often. It is adviable to include routine checks with your customer service representative to ensure that the plan currently in place is still the best fit for your needs.
Telecom service in today's complex world is neither simple nor cheap. It is still possible, however, to devise a plan for your home and family that is, if not inexpensive, at least serves your needs in a cost-effective manner. Given the overlapping roles of a large number of telecom companies, getting good value for the money spent requires taking charge of your arrangements, asking questions about the latest plans and fees, and conducting routine reviews of your overall service package.
Within this context, AT&T's services can be a great bargain or they can be excessively overpriced. The key to achieving the former rather than the latter is your own willingness to be a proactive consumer.