Let Your Calling Cards Do The Shopping, The Faxing...

Forget to buy your mother a birthday gift? MCI Communications Corp. wants to come to your rescue. The No. 2 long-distance company is developing a concierge service for its calling-card holders. MCI won't pick up your dry cleaning, but it does hope to work out arrangements for delivering a vase or scarf to your mom's house.

The service, expected to start later this year, may not have any advantages over calling Spiegel's or Tiffany's. But it shows just how far calling cards have come since American Telephone & Telegraph unveiled the first one some 40 years ago.

These days, as growth is slowing in the $55 billion-a-year long-distance market, AT&T, MCI, and Sprint have shifted their competitive focus to the calling-card business. All of the cards let holders do what AT&T's original card did: make calls from the road and charge them to a home or business number. But competition has led to a proliferation of extra services--some free, some not.

HELPFUL HYBRIDS. Getting a card is simple. Call 800 225-5288 for AT&T, 800 999-4400 for MCI, and 800 877-7746 for Sprint. The cards are free, and you can get one even if you don't subscribe to the carrier's long-distance service.

Another way is to apply for a calling card combined with a credit card. AT&T's Universal Card, for instance, lets you charge calls and also serves as a Visa or MasterCard. Sprint has a deal with American Express whereby the credit-card number doubles as your calling-card number. Calls are billed to your American Express account. Unlike regular calling cards, though, such hybrids require a credit check and may charge an annual fee.

All three long-distance carriers offer incentives to bring you into their camp. Sprint will give you 100 free minutes of calling time if you sign up. And if you buy a Sony phone, Sprint will throw in an additional 120 minutes. MCI is giving customers an hour of time for every rival calling card they send in for disposal, up to a maximum of four hours. If you buy a bag of Lay's or Ruffles potato chips and send in a coupon, MCI will give you 30 free minutes. And you can get a further $15 worth of time if you also sign up for its long-distance service.

FAX-FORWARDING. Of the extra calling-card services, free speed dialing is one of the more popular. This lets you call often-dialed numbers using a two-digit code. Without speed dialing, you would have to punch in the 10-digit number you're calling, plus your calling-card number. Even with MCI's version of speed dialing, though, you must punch in a 10-digit MCI 800 number, your calling-card number, the star sign on the phone, and the two-digit number. That's called progress.

Another service many cardholders use is electronic message delivery. This lets you record a message for delivery to a specified number at a specified time. MCI, for example, charges $1.60 per message. Many cards also offer conference calling, which hooks together several parties from the road. Sprint, which imposes a maximum surcharge of $2.25, is the only company that offers this calling-card service without the intervention of an operator.

More features are on the way. In addition to MCI's concierge service, AT&T is working on a fax mailbox. Here's how it might work: Your boss sends a fax to a centralized computer, which converts it into data. Then, when you arrive at your hotel, you call an 800 number to see if anything has been left for you. If you find out something is waiting there, you punch in the number of the hotel's fax, and the computer will forward the message.

VOICE DIAL. Not to be outdone, Sprint is doing field tests with 50,000 customers of a computerized system that understands spoken commands. Customers dial a toll-free Sprint number and familiarize Sprint's computer with their voice patterns. Then, they can prompt the computer to associate certain voice commands with specific numbers. That way, customers can just say "call home" or "call office," and Sprint's computer will dial those numbers.

The service has one big advantage. It makes it far more difficult for crooks to use your card, since it will work only with your voice. But the system may not understand your voice if there's a lot of background noise where you're calling from, as there might be in an airport.

As computers and communication technology become increasingly sophisticated, even more inventive gimmicks will surface. Some will be more worthwhile than others. But since the cards are free, you can't go wrong trying them all out.

                                        AT&T     MCI     Sprint
      BRAILLE CARD                        Yes     No     Yes
      COUNTRY-TO-COUNTRY CALLING          Yes     Yes     Yes
      ELECTRONIC MESSAGE DELIVERY         Yes     Yes     Yes
      INFORMATION SERVICES*               No      Yes     Yes
      HAVING TO REDIAL THE CARD NUMBER     Yes    Yes     Yes
      SPEED DIALING                        No     Yes     No
      VOICE RECOGNITION SERVICE            No     No     Yes**
      * Includes sports, weather, news, and stock market reports  ** Testing