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AT&T simplifies rates for millions of callers

The price of a long-distance call will be simplified for millions of AT&T customers, even if they haven't signed up for the discount plan touted by actor Paul Reiser in those ever-present TV ads.

AT&T said Tuesday that it will price calls for "basic" customers _ residential customers not enrolled in a discount plan _ at a single rate depending on the time of day, regardless of the distance.

Effective Saturday, "many customers will see lower prices depending on when they make their calls. For example, calls placed Sunday evening will be priced up to 25 percent lower than the current rate," the company said.

Consumer advocates said the changes could increase the price of some calls. AT&T spokesman Jim McGann acknowledged that, saying: "Some people will pay more. Some people will pay less. It's all based on when they call. The changes are revenue neutral to AT&T."

AT&T's heavily promoted One Rate discount plan charges a flat rate, 15 cents a minute, regardless of time of day or distance. Ten-million customers are on it.

But many of AT&T's 80-million residential customers are not on discounted plans.

Under AT&T's new plan, basic customers will be charged 28 cents a minute during peak hours of 7 a.m. to 6:59 p.m. weekdays; 16 cents a minute during off-peak hours 7 p.m. to 6:59 a.m. weekdays; and 13 cents a minute on weekends.

Since July 15, AT&T has been charging basic customers 26 cents to 29 cents a minute for peak calls; 14 cents to 18 cents a minute for off-peak calls; and 13 cents to 17 cents a minute for weekends. Each time period was defined differently than under the new plan.

Geoff Mordock, a research associate who monitors long-distance rates for the Telecommunications Research & Action Center, a non-profit consumer group based in Washington, said the change is "negligible. It is not really a reduction regardless of calling patterns."

For years, the telephone industry used distance to price calls, but it has been trying to move away from that as part of a larger trend to simplify rates, he said

Gene Kimmelman of Consumers' Union said he would ask the FCC to look into the new rates to determine if AT&T is reneging on an earlier promise to reduce nighttime rates by 15 percent. AT&T, which already made the cut, is not reneging, McGann said.

With the new plan, "consumers face potential rate hikes for weeknight and early morning calls," Kimmelman said.

Rivals MCI and Sprint have already simplified rates for basic customers, though they still factor distance into pricing, officials from each company said.

"We're definitely in line with what AT&T is proposing as far as pricing with the exception that we offer 5 cents a minute calling on Sundays," said MCI spokesman Brad Burns.

Competitively, AT&T's move makes little difference to MCI and Sprint because most of their customers are on calling plans that offer better deals, the officials said.

"It's not a threat; more than 75 percent of our customers are on a calling plan," Sprint spokeswoman Robin Pence said.

Mordock welcomed AT&T's move to simplify basic rates.

"It's a good step for consumers because rates are very confusing," he said.