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Consumer response to telecommunications deregulation: the equal access decision.

Consumer Response to Telecommunications Deregulation: The Equal Access Decision

The court-ordered divestiture of AT&T, effective January 1, 1984, has affected all of America's millions of telephone users. Many consumers have made numerous decisions about their telephone services and equipment. The vast majority have been unprepared to respond with informed judgments.

One major decision that over 50 million Americans (U.S. House of Representatives 1986, p. 294) have made is the "equal access" decision. Equal access - the choice of which long-distance carrier is reached by using "1 plus" dialing - is probably the most publicized result of divestiture. Its intent is to put AT&T's competitors on a more equal footing in their quest for customer patronage. [Enis and Sullivan (1985) present a detailed analysis of the divestiture agreement.]

While consumers may benefit from a greater number of choices, many people are confused about the impact of deregulation. In a 1985 Gallup poll of over 1,200 households, 33 percent reported that they did not understand very well why the breakup of AT&T occurred, and 12 percent did not understand the breakup at all (U.S. House of Representatives 1986, p. 135). In Hyman's (1985) survey of 500 Pennsylvania consumers, over 50 percent did not know or had not thought about the causes of the breakup. Fewer than 50 percent could even name the companies providing their local and long-distance services.

Moreover, results from areas where equal access has been implemented also indicate consumer confusion. When equal access reaches an area, consumers receive two opportunities to select a primary long-distance carrier. (1) Nationwide, only 33 percent of Bell customers in the first exchanges to convert to equal access chose a primary carrier (U.S. House of Representatives 1986, p. 580).

The equal access decision provides an unprecedented opportunity to examine consumers' responses to deregulation of an industry. The situation is unique in that it is one for which most consumers have little or no background information or experience from which to draw. Therefore, the purposes of this research were

(1) to assess the extent of consumers' search for information in the equal access decision,

(2) to identify the types of information acquired in prepurchase search and the perceived inadequacies of the information available, and

(3) to examine the relationship between the intensity of search for information and selected demographic characteristics.


A vast body of literature examines consumers' prepurchase search for information. Much of this work is based on Stigler's (1961) classic article. He postulated that consumers determine the optimal amount of search for information about the price of a good by equating the savings expected to result from a given search to the expected costs. Stigler suggested that, to maximize the expected utility, a person searches until the expected cost of an additional attempt to acquire information exceeds the expected return.

In the case of long-distance telephone services, the expected savings are primarily in the form of lower rates. Compared with AT&T, the other long-distance companies (other common carriers or OCCs) held a major price advantage prior to divestiture. However, AT&T's long-distance rates have decreased by an average of 30 percent since divestiture (Nation's Business 1987), and costs for the OCCs have increased. By 1986, the OCCs paid the same price as AT&T for connections to the networks of local phone companies; before the breakup, they enjoyed a 55 percent discount over AT&T (U.S. House of Representatives 1986, pp. 323-325). Therefore, the potential savings from choosing an OCC rather than AT&T have been estimated to be as low as five to twelve percent (Consumer Reports 1986; Business Week 1987; Wall Street Journal 1986). (2) However, some consumers still believe that vast dollar savings are likely with an OCC. Thus, they may overestimate the benefits of search.

The costs of search for information about long-distance telephone services are likely to be perceived as high by the average consumer. Two unique aspects of the equal access decision complicate search. First, unlike many purchase decisions made by adults, in the equal access decision the average consumer cannot draw upon a bank of product information built from past experience. Bloch et al. (1986) has suggested that consumers build such information banks by engaging in "ongoing search" - search activities that are independent of specific purchase needs or decisions. Yet, prior to 1984, few consumers anticipated that a decision requiring a choice of long-distance carriers was likely. Commercial appeals by AT&T's competitors may have alerted consumers to the fact that options existed, but few could have predicted when those options would become available locally or that a decision would be required at a specific time. Thus, little incentive existed for most consumers to engage in ongoing search. When confronted with the equal access decision, most consumers not only had to make choices about the optimal amount of information to acquire, but also had to identify sources of that information.

The equal access decision is also unique in that consumers know at the outset that if they do not make a choice, they will be assigned to a long-distance company. Some consumers may choose to forego the search costs and allow others to make the choice for them. However, all consumers may not understand the assignment procedure. In the first 18 months of divestiture, consumers who made no selection were assigned to AT&T by default. Since May 1985, consumers who make no selection may be assigned to any of the available competitors; assignments are based on the share of the market earned by competitors from consumers who did make a choice. The change in procedure may have created confusion for some consumers that colored their perceptions of the costs and benefits of making a choice.

Nelson's (1970) concept of an experience good is also relevant in understanding consumer response to the equal access decision. Experience as a substitute for search may be especially valid when the cost of purchase is low and/or assessment of one or more important aspects of quality is subjective. In the equal access decision, both conditions may exist. The marginal cost of acquiring information through experience might well be perceived to be low because consumers are generally not assessed a charge to start service with an OCC. Thus, the only cost would be the loss of utility incurred if the company chosen had higher rates and/or provided poorer service than the company it replaced. Also, the quality of long-distance service is likely to be defined by several characteristics that are difficult to assess objectively, including voice transmission quality and convenience of use. Due to the sparcity of objective information available, consumers may decide that making subjective assessments through use is the lower cost option.

These theories suggest four possible consumer responses to the equal access decision. They are noted below.

(1) Consumers may view long-distance service as a search good and

(a) search extensively for information, perceiving the benefits of search to exceed the costs or

(b) search little, perceiving the costs of search to be relatively high and/or the benefits to be relatively low.

(2) Consumers may view long-distance service as an experience good and thus seek little prepurchase information.

(3) Consumers may be apathetic and/or lack insufficient knowledge about the market to make rational judgments about the costs and benefits of acquiring information either through search or experience. Therefore, their behavior will be unpredictable and cannot be explained by theory.


Search theory suggests several characteristics that may be related to the intensity of a consumer's search efforts. The costs of information search are largely determined by the opportunity cost of time and the efficiency of search. Linder (1970) argued that as income increases, consumers either spend less time in prepurchase search or become more efficient in their search efforts. Education appears to increase the efficiency of search (Michael 1972); a positive relationship has generally been established between education and prepurchase search (Bucklin 1969; Newman 1977; Schaninger and Sciglimpaglia 1981). Related market experience also seems to increase efficiency (Goldman and Johansson 1978; Marvel 1976; Newman and Staelin 1972). Factors that affect time available for search are also relevant; employment of family members (Newman and Staelin 1972), children in the household (Gronau 1973), and household size may be negatively related to search. Age has also been negatively related to search (Hempel 1969; Katona and Mueller 1955). Finally, individuals who are "information seekers" (Thorelli and Engledow 1980) in other purchase decisions may be more inclined to search prior to making the equal access decision.

Given that a consumer views the equal access decision as a search decision, the literature suggests the following hypotheses concerning the extent of prepurchase information search.

(1) Higher educational levels, previous experience with OCCs, and search in other purchase decisions will be associated with greater amounts of search.

(2) Employment, children in the household, household size, and age will be negatively related to search.

No hypothesis was formulated concerning the impact of income. It is impossible to predict which effect will be stronger - the higher opportunity cost of time or the greater efficiency in search associated with increased income.


Questionnaires were mailed to a random sample of residents of Champaign and Urbana, Illinois in February 1987. Residents of those two communities, which receive local telephone service from Illinois Bell, made the equal access decision in May 1986. Consumers could choose from among five carriers (three national and two resygional companies). Mail and telephone promotion was extensive, and the decision received much attention from the local media.

Equal access service began in June 1986. Thus, the decision had been made approximately eight months before the survey was mailed. It was, therefore, hoped that recall about prepurchase search for information would be high. Yet, by the time of the survey, consumers had also had some experience with their chosen carriers.

Following pretesting and revisions, questionnaires were mailed to a random sample of 1,000 Champaign and Urbana residents drawn from the local telephone directory. The accompanying letter asked that the survey be completed by the person(s) who took primary responsibility for the household's telephone decisions. Followup reminders were mailed two weeks later. Of the 1,000 questionnaires mailed, 14 were undeliverable. Of the remaining 986, 348 usable surveys were returned for a response rate of 35 percent.


General Descriptive Findings

The households responding to the survey tended to be relatively small and well educated.(3) Over 65 percent of the households consisted of one (24.5 percent) or two persons (41.2 percent) (Table 1). In over one-third of the responding households, one or more persons had a graduate degree (37.2 percent). In another 21 percent, at least one person had completed a college or trade school education. [Tabular data omitted]

The households were fairly equally distributed among six income brackets; approximately 18 percent earned less than $10,000 a year, and another 18 percent earned over $50,000 a year (Table 1). In over three-fourths of the households (77.6 percent), at least one person was employed full time.

Over four-fifths of the respondents (83.3 percent) recalled receiving a letter from their local telephone company asking them to choose a long-distance carrier. Of those 290, 260 (90 percent) said that they returned the ballot. Two-thirds chose AT&T as their primary carrier, with one regional (16.7 percent) and one national carrier (12.4 percent) garnering the lion's share of the remainder of the market. AT&T was the company most often used by the majority of consumers before equal access; only 15 percent had previously used an OCC for most of their long-distance calls.

Among the 30 consumers who did not return a ballot, 17 gave as the reason the desire to keep the service they were currently using. This response indicates a lack of understanding of the system because consumers who did not vote were not automatically assigned to their previous carrier.

A substantial portion of the remainder of the questionnaire focused on consumers' acquisition and use of prepurchase information. Nearly two-thirds (61.6 percent) of the respondents indicated that they made their decision by "comparing the alternatives and choosing the best one for me." One-fourth (26.4 percent) simply chose a company used in the past without considering the other options (Table 2). Table : TABLE 2 Decisions Strategies and Perceptions of the Equal Access Decision Situation
Variables n Percentage
How chose carrier (284)
 Compared alternatives 175 61.6
 Chose company used in the past 75 26.4
 Asked friends/neighbors 20 7.0
 Other 8 2.8
 Don't know 6 2.1
Information available to make decision (291)
 Not enough 144 49.5
 About right 115 39.5
 Too much 32 11.0
Quality of information for decision (285)
 Poor or very poor 137 48.1
 About right 103 36.1
 Good or excellent 45 15.8
Time to make decision (286)
 Too little 25 8.7
 About right 219 76.6
 Too long 42 14.7

Approximately one-half of the respondents said there was not enough information available to help in choosing a long-distance company and that the quality of existing information was poor or very poor. Three-fourths were, however, satisfied with the amount of time they were given to make their decision (Table 2).

The responses reported above would seem to indicate that consumers viewed the equal access decision as a search decision in which prepurchase information was desirable but scarce. However, another set of questions in the survey elicited somewhat contradictory responses.

Seven characteristics were identified as potentially relevant in the choice of a long-distance company. Consumers were asked how important each characteristic was in their choices. For six of these characteristics, the respondents were also asked how much information they sought and how much additional information they needed. The seventh characteristics - past experience with a company - was replaced by a general topic (how to choose a long-distance carrier) for the information questions.

Responses are reported in Table 3. The majority of the respondents indicated that five of the seven characteristics are "moderately" or "very" important: voice transmission quality (88.0 percent), convenience of use (84.4 percent), good customer service (81.1 percent), low cost (76.7 percent), and stability of the company (71.8 percent). Past experience with a company and the range of services offered are moderately or very important to approximately 50 percent of those surveyed. The two factors about which consumers indicated they sought the most information are cost and convenience of use; 70 percent acquired a "little" or a "great deal" of information on each of these two characteristics. Yet, the proportion of consumers who did not acquire any information is over one-fourth for each of the seven characteristics and over 40 percent for four of them. Furthermore, for all of the seven characteristics except low cost, over 45 percent of the respondents indicated that they did not need any additional information. [Tabular Data Omitted]

The Hypotheses

An index to measure search activity was created from responses to questions about the amount of information sought on the seven characteristics identified in Table 3. Moderate search was defined as seeking a "little" information about at least three of the characteristics and/or a "great deal" of information on at least two. Consumers who acquired no information on any one of the seven characteristics were defined as engaging in no search. The search activities of the remainder of the respondents were defined as "limited." Nearly one-half of the sample is in the moderate search group; the remainder is nearly equally divided between no search and limited search.

Chi-square analysis indicated that the search index successfully differentiated among groups (Table 1). Consumers who reported that they made the decision by comparing the alternatives are far more likely to engage in moderate search than those who chose the company used in the past (65 percent compared with 31 percent).

Chi-square analysis was also used to investigate the relationship between selected variables (4) and the extent of prepurchase search. As hypothesized, search is positively and significantly related to previous experience with OCCs, education, and search in other purchase decisions. Households who had previously used an OCC as their primary carrier are more likely to engage in moderate search (58 percent) than households who had not (47 percent) (Table 1). Nearly one-half of the households with no more than a high school education did not acquire any prepurchase information compared with one-fourth of those with a college degree. Search in other purchase decisions is an index created from responses about information search in eight areas.(5) Consumers who described themselves as usually seeking information prior to making other purchase decisions are also more likely to engage in moderate prepurchase search for long-distance services.

Age is negatively related to the extent of prepurchase search. Households with persons age 56 or older are significantly less likely to engage in moderate search (29 percent) than younger households (43 to 58 percent).

The analyses do not confirm the hypothesized relationships between search and employment, income level, presence of children in the household, or household size.

A multinomial discrete-choice logit model was also used to examine the relationship between selected demographic characteristics and the extent of search. The model was specified as:

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

where [P.sub.ih] is the probability that the [] household will fall in group h, h is one of the three search groups (none, limited, moderate), [X.sub.i] is a vector of characteristics, [B.sub.h] is a vector of coefficients for the [] group, g is the value representing each search group, and [B.sub.g] is a vector of coefficients for g = 1,...,3.

The hypothesis involving the model was that the probability a household selects the [] search group is a function of the selected characteristics. Maximum likelihood estimation of the logit model produces estimates that are consistent, asymptotically efficient, and normally distributed (Garner 1984).

The logit analysis examined the probability of a household engaging in moderate or limited search versus no search. Estimated coefficients, asymptotic standard errors, and tests of significance are reported in Table 4. The likelihood ratio statistic (39.59) indicates that the explanatory variables selected for the model are significant in explaining the search group probabilities. However, the model does not estimate the observed data very well because the likelihood ratio index is only 0.07.(6) [Tabular Data Omitted]

Age and the degree of prepurchase search in other buying decisions are the only two statistically significant variables. The negative coefficient for age reinforces the conclusion from the chi-square analyses that older consumers are less likely to engage in prepurchase search. The logit analysis also confirms that consumers who usually search for prepurchase information are likely to do so in long-distance service decisions as well.


The model developed in this paper suggests four possible consumer responses to the equal access decision. Is one of the four reactions more common than the others? Although responses to different sections of the questionnaire are somewhat contradictory, a rather substantial portion of the sample seems to have viewed the equal access decision (or at least some part of it) as a search decision. Two-thirds said that they compared the options, and over one-half acquired at least a little information on the five characteristics rated most important in the decision. The fact that nearly one-half stated that they did not need any additional information may, in part, reflect the generally low opinion of the quality of information available.

Logit analysis confirms only two of the hypothesized relationships between the extent of prepurchase search and selected characteristics. Search in the equal access decision is positively related to search in other consumer decisions and negatively related to age.

The data also provide evidence that some consumers viewed experience rather than search as the more appropriate response to at least some aspects of the decision. Voice transmission quality was a characteristic about which a substantial proportion of consumers (44.2 percent) indicated they acquired no information. Yet this was also the characteristic most frequently rated as moderately or very important to consumers in their decision making. Since little objective information is available on voice transmission quality, perhaps the data reflect consumers' choice of experience rather than search as a means of evaluation. However, if consumers were using experience to acquire information, one would expect that, by the time of the survey, at least some would have become dissatisfied with the service chosen and switched. The data do not support that assumption. Only 15 consumers had changed to another primary carrier within the eight months following equal access.(7)

The survey did not directly ask questions to measure consumers' knowledge of the telecommunications market. Therefore, one can only speculate about how much of the observed behavior reflects consumer misunderstanding or ignorance. The responses certainly do not indicate that the sample is apathetic; 85 percent of those who received a ballot returned it, and 62 percent said that they compared options before choosing. However, it is likely that "involved" consumers were overrepresented in the sample. Unfortunately, no statistics are available on the percent of consumers within the two exchanges who returned ballots. Thus, comparison of the sample to the population is not possible.


The data provide an interesting portrait of consumer reaction to the equal access decision. Consumers who tend to be "information seekers" (Thorelli and Engledow 1980) in other purchase decisions also appear likely to seek prepurchase information in the equal access decision. However, search seems to be particularly frustrating as the amount and quality of information available is perceived to be low.

While consumers may consider experience as an alternative to search for at least part of the information needed, lack of knowledge about how the market works may make it difficult to use different carriers. Some consumers may not know how to change their primary carrier or how to use a secondary carrier.

The limitations of the study do somewhat restrict its applicability. A larger sample and one more representative of telephone consumers is needed in future work. The relatively high educational level of this sample suggests that search-oriented consumers may be over-represented.

Also, this research specifically addressed consumer response to the equal access decision. Further study is needed to examine responses to decisions about local services and telephone equipment as well as future long-distance service decisions. Following equal access, one can change to another primary carrier or use one or more of the secondary carriers available. With each household move, a primary long-distance carrier must be selected. Therefore, opportunities to make long-distance service decisions continue.

Thus, educational programs related to telecommunications decisions need a multi-faceted approach. Consumers may need assistance in one or more of the following areas:

(1) understanding the organization of the telecommunications market and how it functions, (2) acquiring specific, objective information about one or more of the characteristics of long-distance and local services and equipment, (3) interpreting available information on the chosen decision criteria, and (4) finding answers to procedural questions.

The approach used in future educational and informational programs must depend on the audience. As Hyman (1988) has noted, consumers demonstrate four different types of participation in decision making. Consumer influentials make their own decisions using a variety of sources of information and also influence the decisions of other consumers. Active consumers make their own decisions based on the knowledge available to them, while dependent consumers let others decide for them. Nondecision-makers take no active part in decision making.

Hyman's hierarchy suggests that effective future educational and information programs will be designed with the diversity of consumer response in mind. Consumer influentials and active consumers appear to be the most likely audiences for specific, objective information about characteristics and answers to procedural questions. Education and information programs may have no appeal to dependent consumers and nondecision-makers, or such programs may encourage consumers to become more active participants through increased understanding of the telecommunications market and the choices consumers must make.

Thus educators can play an important role in helping consumers to respond to the decision opportunities presented by deregulation. Consumers may long for the days when all telephones were rotary dial and black and there was a single rate for all long-distance service. Before divestiture, fewer decisions were needed and those made were less complex. Yet, reregulation of the telephone industry is doubtful. Educators can help consumers to make the transition from viewing telephone service as an arena in which they are only passive participants to one in which they are knowledgeable, active, and effective decision makers.

(1)Consumers have approximately 30 days in which to return the first ballot. If they do not, they receive a second letter and have ten days in which to respond. Those failing to return either ballot are assigned to carriers.

(2)Some OCCs offer volume discounts that increase their price advantage for consumers whose monthly long-distance telephone bills total $15 or more.

(3)Higher than average educational levels were expected since the two cities from which the sample was drawn are home to a major land grant university and a community college.

(4)Long-distance service expenditures may also be related to the amount of prepurchase search. However, the relationship could not be examined because the rate of response to this question was low.

(5)The eight types of purchase decisions were clothing, jewelry, personal care items; cameras, stereos, televisions; foods and beverages; sports equipment and toys; autos and automotive equipment; minor appliances; major appliances; and medical services and insurance.

(6)Likelihood ratio indices of 0.2 to 0.4 are considered extremely good fits (Garner 1984).

(7)It is also possible that consumers who are dissatisfied with a primary carrier will simply use other companies as secondary carriers. (To use a company as a secondary carrier requires dialing a five-digit access code.) Just over one-fifth (22.5 percent) of the respondents reported using one or more secondary carriers.


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Brenda J. Cude is an Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in the Division of Family and Consumer Economics, School of Human Resources and Family Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois.

This study was part of Project No. 60-360 at the Agricultural Experiment Station, College of Agriculture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The author gratefully recognizes the assistance of Barbara Chadwell, Research Assistant, and Jill Hashbarger, Research Associate. The suggestions of the two anonymous reviewers were valuable in shaping the final manuscript.
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Author:Cude, Brenda J.
Publication:Journal of Consumer Affairs
Date:Dec 22, 1989
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