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Group has advice on choosing phone plans

by Shawn Gainer

STAFF WRITER

Sorting through the many long-distance rate plans on the market to find the best one for you can be a daunting task, but consumer advocates have advice on how it can be done.

The Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), based in Washington, D.C., is a consumer advocate group that focuses solely on long-distance telephone and calling card rates. TRAC issues a 12-page publication with advice on sorting through rate plans. Also, consumers can access the organization's Web site and compare rates between two carriers for a weekend or weekday call made at a particular time of day. TRAC studies rates among the seven largest long distance carriers, said Karen Walls, a senior staff associate with TRAC.

"A lot of people don't want to take the time to shop around, but there are plans with good rates, no monthly fees and no minimum charges," Walls said. "You just have to know what's out there."

AT&T alone has more than 30 long-distance telephone service plans. Shopping for a better plan doesn't necessarily mean you will have to switch carriers, Walls said.

"We advise people to go ahead and call their carriers about other rate plans. Generally, we've found you will get an honest answer. They would rather keep you than have you go to another carrier, even they keep you at a lower rate," she said. "But in terms of long-distance, people should not only look at rates but monthly fees."

Walls said criteria that can help you choose a plan to fit your needs include the amount of money you spend on long-distance per month, the rough amount of minutes of your monthly long-distance calls, and the days of the week or weekend you make the most long-distance calls on.

"Some plans have lower rates on one day of the weekend," she said. "If you make a lot of long-distance calls on Sunday, try to get a plan that has a low Sunday rate."

Walls said consumers should be particularly careful in choosing calling cards, because card rates can get as high as 89 cents a minute, with surcharges of up to $1.50 for calling from a pay telephone.

TRAC also issues advice on selecting dial-around long distance services such as Telecom USA's 10-10-321. TRAC advises consumers to compare rates among dial-arounds before using one, and watch for high rates linked to minimum talk times and monthly fees that can offset rate savings.

"If you look according to your needs, you can find a good plan," Walls said. "It's worth a call to your carrier at least."

TRAC can be located on the Internet at www.trac.org.

Staff writer Shawn Gainer can be reached at 626-1442.

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