DEAR DATA DOG

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Nope. Even among major holidays, Thanksgiving ranks last in number of long-distance calls placed in a single day, despite the 8,000 calls to Butterball's Turkey Talk-line. (The most popular question: "How do I thaw a turkey safely?") Mother's Day is the top holiday for long-distance calls, according to AT&T (www.att.com/press/1195/951113.cha.html).

But the single busiest long-distance calling day of the year isn't a holiday at all. (Not until Congress declares "Busiest Long-Distance Calling Day" a holiday, that is.) That title actually belongs to the Monday following Thanksgiving. No doubt a lot of these calls are of the "Did you get home safely?" or "You forgot your leftovers" variety - because the Sunday following Thanksgiving is the most heavily traveled day of the year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics' "Home for the Holidays" report (www.bts.gov).

If you're talking to your grandparents long distance that post-Thanksgiving Monday, it will probably cost less if you drop the dime, rather than the other way around. An AARP-sponsored survey last year (www.research. aarp.org/consume/d16819_longdist_1.html) found that, whereas 58 percent of people aged 18 to 49 have switched long-distance carriers to get a cheaper rate, only 39 percent of those 65 or over have done so. This tallies with the finding that less than a third of those 65 or over have even looked for long-distance providers with cheaper rates.

Since households headed by those 55 and over make up the greatest percentage of households with telephones (according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide" at www. ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fttn99/contents.html, it stands to reason that a whole lot of people are spending more on long distance than they need to.

Nor are people over 55 likely to be using e-mail as one of their long-distance communications options. "Falling through the Net" reports that between 1994 and 1998, householders over 55 with home e-mail access grew from 1.3 percent to 9.3 percent - a sizable jump, but still leaving them far short of the 24 percent range for those age 25 to 54. There's hope for the overpaying oldsters, however: More and more of them will be using cell phones in the future. According to the 1997 Wireless Market Monitor Survey sponsored by the Personal Communications Industry Association (www.pcia. com), by 2010 today's 20 percent wireless penetration for those 60 and over will have reached 60 percent.

The AARP also discovered that more than three-quarters of long-distance callers - regardless of age - claimed either to be getting a good deal on their long-distance service or paying about what it's worth. How most of them came to this conclusion is a mystery, since 37 percent of long-distance callers don't even pay attention to what their long-distance service costs. (It must be the Psychic Friends.)

January 1999's "Dynamics and Trends in the Wireless Marketplace" report from the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association notes that wireless service providers are considered good deals by roughly the same percentage of people who like their long-distance provider (www.wow-com.com/statsurv/survey/hart/). Does this indicate satisfaction or inattention?

This past September the FCC released the second of its biennial surveys, "Trends in Telephone Service" (www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Common_Carrier/Reports/ FCC-State_Link/trends.html). The greatest percentage of domestic long-distance phone calls, 23.1 percent, fell into in the 23-to-55 mile category - which says less about our calling habits than it does about the phone companies' definition of long distance.

As far as how long we talk on the phone, the shortest calls tend to travel the fewest miles: 4.2 minutes on average for calls from one to ten miles ("Hello, Dominos?") The longest calls (an average of 11.8 minutes) spanned between 926 and 1,910 miles ("I just told you everything I put in my letter").

And the largest percentage of calls (34 percent in 1998) last no more than a minute - no surprise, given the number of answering machines now standing in for human beings. A 1997 survey by Decision Analyst, Inc. (www.decisionanalyst.com) found that more than 77 percent of American households report owning an answering machine; 85 percent of those in the 18-to-34 age group had one, as opposed to 67 percent of those 55 and older. Call-waiting isn't terribly popular among the 65-and-over crowd either, the AARP reports. Only 18 percent subscribed to the service, versus 55 percent of those 18 to 49.

So if you're looking for that perfect Christmas present for Grandma, how about a combination telephone/answering machine, throw in call-waiting and voicemail options, along with a long-distance service provider you've personally selected for its discount calling plan. Add a cellular phone for emergencies, and you'll always be able to leave her a message. As soon as she finishes reading all those manuals, you'll get a call back.

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