Time To Dial Up A New Long Distance Plan?

If the barrage of long-distance phone plans leaves you mystified, welcome to the club.

With 5 cents Sundays, personal 800 numbers, and all those cell-phone deals, you need a computer to keep it all sorted out. But it's worth the effort to try.

Some 60% of U.S. households say they are not even on a plan and therefore are probably paying twice what they need to, says Yankee Group, a consulting firm in Boston. And "if you're an older customer on an existing plan, you're probably paying a lot more than a new customer they [phone companies] are trying to attract," says Robert Self, a Bethesda (Md.) telephone consultant. "You have to be aggressive about updating your plan."

Begin your search for a new phone plan by getting to know your personal calling pattern. Look at your last three long-distance phone bills and average how much time and money you spend per month on the phone. Generally, calling patterns break down three ways:

-- How much do you talk? Are you are a heavy or light user?

-- When do you call? Do you tend to phone during weekdays or nights and weekends?

-- Where do you make your calls? From home or on the road? If it's the latter, do you use a cell phone?

If you're a cell-phone user, you might be a road warrior, regularly traveling the country and using your phone to keep tabs on family, friends, and business. Until recently, every time you left your local calling area, you would be hit with roaming and long-distance charges on top of your basic per-minute rates. The cost: about $1 a minute. Then, at&t launched Digital One, which charges a flat monthly rate regardless of where you roam and call. "For a traveler or for those who make a lot of long-distance calls, it's just what the doctor ordered," says Jeffrey Kagan, an independent telecom analyst in Atlanta.

Digital One and its imitators offer a bucket of minutes for a monthly fee. at&t offers 600, 1,000, and 1,400 minutes for $89.99, $119.99, and $149.99, respectively, including such features as voicemail, caller id, and call waiting. Pay attention to your calling habits, however: If you buy 600 minutes for $90 a month, and only use 300 of them, you're paying double per minute. If you go over 600 minutes, you'll pay 25 cents extra. And because wireless users pay for both outgoing and incoming calls, those minutes can disappear fast.

WEEKEND YAKKER. Whether you're a heavy wireless user or just a weekend yakker, you need to find a provider that offers service in your home area and where you travel. Most major metropolitan areas are covered by digital service, which is clearer and more secure than the older analog variety. But analog has a broader reach. If you use digital service in New York City, for example, you must switch to analog when you go to your summer home in Long Island. In that case, you could use a dual-mode phone, which lets you switch between networks.

Perhaps you're a cautious caller. You don't care about staying in touch all the time but want a cellular for emergencies, such as a car breakdown. Your logical choice would be a plan with the lowest monthly fee. With a plan like Sprint pcs, which is digital, you pay $16.99 a month for 15 to 30 free minutes, depending on where you live. You may shell out more per minute when you use the phone but won't be spending much when you don't.

Two Web sites can help you choose a cell-phone service. Wireless Advisor (www. wirelessadvisor.com) lets you plug in your zip code and find out who provides service there. Wireless Dimension (www.wirelessdimension.com) lists all the plans in your area and lets you compare up to five of them side by side. Both give good advice about how to choose a cell-phone provider.

If you're an occasional traveler who doesn't really need a cell phone, you may be tempted to use calling cards. Be warned that rates have risen sharply. You may be paying 40 cents a minute, with a 65 cents surcharge per call from anywhere on the road. Moreover, the card is tied to your home calling plan. To get a card that charges only 10 cents a minute, you may have to switch to a long-distance plan that costs $30 a month.

Fortunately, there are other choices. If you only call your home when you're on the road, you can get a personal 800 number that charges about 25 cents a minute and a few bucks a month--and you don't have to change plans. Prepaid calling cards are cheaper, about 20 cents a minute with no surcharge. But lose the card and it's like losing cash. By far the cheapest alternative is a Voicenet phone card, which routes phone calls over the Internet for 5 cents to 7 cents a minute if you live in the New York to Delaware corridor. Calls are 13 cents a minute for users outside that area.

Let's say you're a homebody. You call long distance, but from the comfort of your easy chair during the day. You face peak rates of up to 28 cents a minute if you're stuck with one of the traditional plans like mci Friends and Family. But for a $4.95 monthly fee on mci or at&t, for example, you could pay just 10 cents a minute, no matter when you call. And there are even cheaper deals from second-tier companies such as Dallas-based Excel. Its Simply 7 plan is 7 cents a minute for $4.95. Matrix Member Plus is 8.9 cents. Qwest has a 9 cents-a-minute plan. Its $4.95 monthly fee includes new federally mandated surcharges that can easily add $2 or more to your bill on other plans.

ONLINE HELP. Bargain deals are also available online. Most major phone companies offer lower flat rates (7 cents to 9 cents a minute) with no monthly fee if you sign up at their Web sites, pay by credit card, and view your phone bill online.

If you make most of your long-distance calls at night or on weekends, avoid paying a monthly fee and get a flat rate of 10 cents a minute by using a plan such Frontier's Homesaver, which charges 25 cents for day use but only 10 cents at night and on weekends. A much better deal, though, are plans offered by mci and at&t that include a 5 cents weekend rate. "If you want the cheapest rate, 5 cents on Sunday is as good as it gets," says Samuel Simon, founder of the Telecommunications Research & Action Center, a consumer group in Washington (www.trac.org). If you spend four hours or more on the phone on weekends, Sprint Sense Unlimited will be your best bet, at $25 a month for unlimited weekend calls.

Whether or not you fit into one of these categories, some independent services can help you sort through the long-distance maze. TRAC's Web site compares the best services for you if you plug in data about your calling pattern. TRAC (P.O. Box 27279, Washington D.C. 20005) also offers TeleTips, a $5 quarterly newsletter that compares major plans by general calling patterns and explains many of the features and potential booby traps.

Consumer's Action (www. consumer-action.org), a nonprofit group in San Francisco, provides a comparison chart that can be downloaded from the Web or ordered by mail (717 Market St., Suite 310, San Francisco, Calif. 94103). It compares plans based on whether your average bill is $10, $10 to $25, or more than $25. When you look at the welter of phone deals out there, it's understandable if you get nostalgic for Ma Bell. Then again, Ma never gave you these kinds of savings.

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