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Travelers may find friendlier phone service

Those obscure companies that often levy sky-high charges for long-distance telephone calls made at airports, hotels and other public places are going to have to become a little more user-friendly beginning next month. A law signed by President Bush on Oct. 17 will phase in a series of federal rules on the so-called alternative operator services companies, which sometimes charge unwitting callers two or three times what they pay the long-distance company they use at home.

As of Nov. 17, the operator companies will be required to clearly identify themselves during calls, provide rates and billing procedures on demand, stop charging for unanswered calls and allow some access to the interstate long-distance company that callers wish to use.

The Federal Communications Commission, which already had instituted many of these rules but had found widespread lack of compliance, also will be required to begin monitoring the rates these companies charge. If the commission finds the rates unjust, it could order them rolled back.

The FCC also is empowered to establish rates for the entire industry in about two years.

"I'm hopeful that this law is going to give the average guy on the street a lot more peace of mind when he stops at a pay phone," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who authored the House bill.

"We cannot sustain a long-distance carrier system wherein a caller is unknowingly playing Russian roulette with his wallet anytime he picks up a telephone," said Sen. John Breaux, D-La.

The operator service companies handle "dial-O" calls, such as collect, person-to-person and charge card calls made by travelers.

The companies contract with the owners of telephones at hotels, universities, airports, hospitals and other public places to handle their long-distance service

and then lease lines on carriers such as AT&T, MCI and US Sprint.

The operator companies offer premises owners hefty commissions _ as high as 20 percent _ for each call made. This puts them in competition with local telephone companies and the long-distance carriers in the $12-billion pay phone marketplace.

Callers often are unaware when they dial a phone away from home that they are using one of the operator companies. Many callers have complained of excessive charges and billings from cities they have never visited.

Operator service industry officials claim their rates may look high in comparison to the nation's largest long-distance company, AT&T because AT&T prices its service below costs in some areas. AT&T denies the allegation.

The "blocking" of access to callers' presubscribed long-distance company also has been a major source of complaints.

Within 30 days of Bush's signing, the operator service companies and the call aggregators must allow callers to reach 950- or 800-prefix "access" numbers that connect with some long-distance companies.

Within nine months, the FCC must decide whether to require access to 950 or 800 numbers or to "10XXX" access numbers some long-distance companies use. Eighteen months from now, all new phone equipment used by these companies or telephone owners must be able to reach 10XXX access.

The FCC also must decide whether pay telephone owners should be compensated for access calls, said Kurt Schroeder, an attorney in the commission's common carrier bureau. Currently, anyone calling one of the access numbers pays only the long-distance company, and not the pay telephone owner.

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