Avoiding the hangups after Ma Bell.
Nostalgia for these simpler times is doubtless rife among befuddled consumers. Now that the U.S. Department of Justice has rudely jerked America from Ma Bell's all-encompassing embrace--following a seven-year antitrust battle that cost the taxpayer an estimated $15 million--the age of telephone innocence is over. Countless decisions must now be faced: How can burgeoning monthly service rates be contained? Which long-distance service is best? Which is the best phone and what accessories are needed? How is the new equipment installed?
While these questions weigh like albatrosses upon the innovation-weary, high-tech buffs eye the confusion wrought by the breakup of AT&T with glee. No longer must a stodgy phone be tolerated when a rainbow-hued array of goodies awaits at countless phone stores throughout the nation. Now anything is possible. Jet-setters can chit-chat on an astonishing variety of designer phones. Manufacturers offer one-piece, initial-engraved, electronic phones in silver or gold plate; gaudy pedestal phones; and units encased in black onyx or synthetic seashells. The consumer can wander the kitchen while he talks to friends intercom-style on a Darth Vader speaker phone or answer a call by plucking the receiver from the hand of Winnie-the-Pooh, Snoopy or Mickey Mouse. Pac-Man phones, phones for the bathroom and phones with message boards are plentiful. For the spatulate-fingered, there is a phone with giant push buttons. Phones now come with options never before seen outside the office. Automatic redialers and various other computer functions abound, in addition to the option of going cordless.
What we are really seeing is the start of a communications revolution that centers in the phone lines. By using computer commands, your phone will soon be able to activate the air-conditioner to cool the house for your arrival from work or start dinner by turning on the microwave. Sensitive telephone amplifiers will check on the kids during an evening out, and a smoke detector connected with the phone will alert the fire department. The phone, in effect, will become an extension of the computer.
The seven newly created regional phone companies will also get into the act. For example, NYNEX, the new phone company for the Northeast, regards itself as such a good bill collector that it is thinking of performing this service for other businesses. Other phone companies plan to market specialized yellow pages, promote various data-stream services and even enter the cable-television sweepstakes. Your local phone company, which now competes with the new AT&T in many ways, is no longer the passive bill collector of old.
Consumers will suffer from the breakup in many respects. Veins will stand out on consumers' necks when they see their phone bills. Expect your monthly rates to double--or to go higher still if you live in a rural area. The breakup ended a national policy of diverting revenues from long-distance calls in order to subsidize cheap local service. Under the old arrangement, 37 cents of each long-distance dollar underwrote local calls, for an average monthly bill of $11.38. Now both local and long-distance fees will reflect market conditions. The burden of this new pricing will fall hardest on the rural user, because a phone line may support as few as 10 phones in Idaho or as many as 10,000 phones in Los Angeles. The party line, that staple of small-town gossips, may return; and many rural people will find that the increase in rates means that they may not be able to afford phone service at all.
Another unpleasant fact is that residential customers, not businesses, will bear the brunt of these increases. Heavy corporate users will be the favored clients and will therefore have a large say in their own fates. (Besides, corporations can set up private phone systems to bypass local companies.) The new phone companies must show profits and attract capital; their main concern will not be keeping rates within the reach board?" Bill then asked the man.
"No, thanks. I tried it once and didn't like it," was his reply.
"Would you care to play a game of handball?" Bill asked.
Again the man replied, "No, thanks. I tried it once and didn't like it. But here comes my son. Perhaps he'll play a game with you." To which Bill responded by saying, "Your only child, I presume." of all Americans. The old AT&T was in effect an extension of the government; the new phone companies will be much more like private businesses. The emphasis in the postdivestiture era will be on hi-tech innovation, not on such functions as service, customer relations and economy.
However, we may not feel the full impact of the price crunch for a while. State regulators will fight dogged rear-guard battles and greet rate-increase requests like so many stabbed Caesars. Bills before Congress could create more regulation if phone rates become a hot political issue. But rates will rise regardless, and every company will press regulators to end flat-fee billing for local calls. The time will come when we all pay per call.
You can battle the disturbing hikes in local rates in two ways: by considering one of the new long-distance services (see box) and by buying your own phone. Nearly everyone will recover the cost of a phone purchase in rent saved the first year. And it is a buyer's market. Manufacturers by the hundreds are leaping into the fray while the new AT&T tries to empty warehouses of old stock. In fact, you have probably already heard offers to sell your old equipment. Consider such offers skeptically. Some excellent bargains can be found in the $20 range, but don't pay more unless you are certain your phone is relatively new. Most of the old AT&T products have been reconditioned. And obtaining the color or style of your choice will be difficult while old stocks are emptied of the predivestiture manufactures.
Furthermore, don't be in any rush to head straight to the American Bell store. Although Bell has been making phones for years, remember that until recently this new AT&T subsidiary did not compete in the marketplace. Until the new AT&T defines its corporate identity, it may be at a competitive disadvantage. Besides, the internal workings of phones made by quality manufacturers differ little. Shop around for your best buy.
The market is awash with so many phones at so many prices, the availability of which varies according to location, it is difficult to present specific price guidelines. But in general, you should be able to buy a quality product for $50 to $100. Beware of units in the $20 range. Although they make excellent extensions or spares, the cheapies--some one-piece plastic units sell for as little as $10--are simply not durable enough. How often do you drop your phone? Besides, most foreign makers of cheap phones will be out of the market a year from now. It's best to stick with name brands and reputable dealers.
"There is a lot of price gouging and prostitution of the product going on right now," says Karl Berger, owner of the ten-year-old Telephone Warehouse of Georgetown in Washington, D.C. "The whole industry is crazy right now, and 90 percent of the stuff out there isn't worth owning. It's going to be a let-the-buyer-beware year. Buy a phone from somebody who will take care of you."
The critical thing to note while shopping is the dialing system. There are two kinds: pulse dialing, which interrupts a steady signal much like the old Morse code and commonly uses a rotary dial; and touch-tone dialing, which employs a series of electronic pitches and never comes with a rotary dial. Be absolutely certain to get tone dialing. It costs more, but without it you can not perform computer functions or use any of the new long-distance services. Beware of phones trumpeted as "universal dial." They are merely rotary phones masquerading as touch-tones--meaning that dialing on them is no improvement over the standard rotary. Certain models, however, such as the Radio Shack DuoFone-140 ($100), switch from pulse to tone dialing.
Another consideration is warranty and repair. A one-year warranty is available in most quality lines, and do not accept anything less than 90 days. also, make sure you can bring your phone back to the dealer, who either repairs it there or sends it to the factory. those who repair locally or regionally offer faster service, and dealing with a human being eager to keep you as a customer is more reassuring than mailing direct to the factory. Be sure to inquire about repair costs and check to see if your shop provides loaners. If you buy an exotic designer model, be sure that certain parts are available and that your phone can be used by the hearing-impaired. Finally, test your new phone with an actual call before buying it to see if the ring is agreeable and all functions work as advertised. Make sure you can return the model in the event it doesn't work at home.
Berger says service should be the primary concern for consumers, because the market is clogged with fly-by-night companies. "The phone market right now is like a big gold mine during a gold rush; it's full of miners out to make a quick buck," says Berger. "The new manufacturers are not taking time to set up repair networks or making sure that replacement parts are available. If you buy a $100 phone at a drug store and lose the owner's manual, when the thing breaks down you might as well throw it in the garbage. Go to a place that will take care of you, or buy yourself a $10 phone and throw it away if it breaks." Besides your locating a reputable dealer, Berger advises purchasing a quality phone. In no particular order, he recommends the models made by Panasonic, Western Electric, ITT, Northern Telecom, Comdial (Stromberg-Carlson's new name) and certain Sanyo models.
Service is especially important if you purchase one of the new cordless models which are all the rage. Cordless units work like walkie-talkies. You can roam the room with receiver in hand or talk while working outside. Prices vary widely, depending on the range and features desired. Bear in mind that most cordless phones have an echo. They also pick up background noise, and hilly terrain tends to shorten their range. If you live by an airport or radio station, chances are you will get no reception. A security code is necessary to prevent neighbors from using your number. Unless cordless models have totally captured your fancy, wait a few years until truly portable phones hit the market in affordable models.
Although certain features such as going cordless may turn out to be fraught with difficulties, many functions are desirable:
* Last-number redial is a blessing. Remember calling that socked-in airport again and again during the holidays? Another interesting use for last-number redial is predialing the number at which the baby sitter can reach you.
* Automatic calling is another desirable feature. Quality phones should provide limited memory capacity and enable you to save countless key strokes by programming a single button to dial your most commonly used numbers. But make sure each button holds at least 11 digits, the number needed for a standard long-distance call, or 15 if you call overseas regularly.
* Speaker phones are another handy feature, because they allow you to talk when your hands are busy. They also make conference-style calls possible and thereby eliminate the need for several extensions in the same room.
* Another item deserving consideration, especially if you plan extensive use of a new long-distance service, is a separate unit called an automatic dialer. Costs range from $30 to $150, depending on memory capacity. You may not think the dialer's 25 to 30 memory units are needed until you draw up a list of frequently made calls. You will definitely use the memory space when you dial on one of the new long-distance services, because the numbers used can be 25 digits long. Both auto-dialers and automatic calling spare you repunching an entire call just because of a mistake on the last digit. Make sure your unit can handle the 25-digit calls and inquire to see if it has the chaining capacity to string together two or three memory slots for special commands. Because all memory chips are fragile, a back-up battery is necessary to preserve your programming during a power failure.
Many other features on automatic dialers are not necessary but are most convenient. On-hook dialing is a pleasure because your machine can be dialing a busy number at 30-second intervals while you do other choresf when you hear over the speaker that the connection has been made, just pick up the receiver. Number displays are also desirable to check digit accuracy for both calling and programming. Digital clocks are another plus, and many combination-feature phones offer timers for the garrulous. Phone packages also include such items as AM/FM clock radios and answering machines. But the teenage lock-out has not yet made its appearance.
Once the big purchase has been made, only one consideration remains: installation. Your phone company will be happy to install your phone, but by no means will the service be free. It's best to face the fact that you have a do-it-yourself project on your hands. Actually, the procedure is not difficult, and phone stores carry an abundance of illustrated how-to books and pamphlets that can lead the neophyte through the complications of the subject.
First, determine if you have modular jacks, which are single-unit, snap-in plugs that connect your phone to the rest of the world's phones. If you're already modular, just snap in your new phone. If not, you need to convert--simply a matter of removing the old connector housing and attaching the wires to a modular housing. The wires are color-cooled and present little danger of a shock, because current flow is low. A screwdriver and possibly a wire tool are all the equipment needed to do the job.
Next, check the front of your directory to make sure you are not "renting" extension wires from the phone company. Install your own extension wires rather than using the phone companyhs; it is very likely that local phone service will be expensive in the new era, and hidden costs must be ferreted out and eliminated to sufficiently whittle away at expenses.
Finally, you must report your phone's "ring equivalency number" to the phone company. This information is in the owner's manual or on the phone itself and is needed by the phone company to make sure there is enough power on your line to ring all the extension phones properly. Phones draw varying amounts of current, but generally you can maintain up to five phones on a single line.
Once your new phone has been installed and you have alerted the phone company, congratulations are in order. You have just entered the new era in communications.
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|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1984|
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