PRICE MUDDLE IN PHONE WARS

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If at&t corp. and its rivals in long-distance telephone service marketing -- MCI WorldCom and Sprint -- are being driven toward a price war, so be it. They deserve it. Or, more precisely, their customers deserve something better than the hard-to-understand (if not simply impenetrable) rate plans most often served up by competing long-distance service marketers.

Alas, simplicity -- and, hence, a real price war -- still eludes marketers in the latest 7 cents- vs. 5 cents-a-minute calling plans now doing battle with one another. There are different monthly fee structures to weigh, and different time-of-day calling restrictions. For a consumer to determine where the value lies, he or she must sit with sharpened pencil and past phone bills. For many, many residential consumers, long-distance service is perhaps a $300-a-year expense. When it takes this much work to weigh different sales propositions, no wonder so many throw up their hands and stick with existing plans and existing vendors.

Of course, the marketers involved no doubt know this. Their quarry is not the average household but the smaller group of heavy users of long distance: consumers with friends and family spread around the country or children at distant colleges or elderly out-of-town parents. For big spenders, there might actually be some benefit in parsing through the plans. But who is marketing real value to the mass of more ordinary customers?

Actually, "price war" is not exactly what long-distance marketers are dabbling in even now -- not, at any rate, as long as their offerings defy easy comparison. Nor does the direction of telecommunications services marketing offer much optimism that clarity will break out any time soon. Strategists for these marketers are marching toward a future where services will not be sold a la carte but in bundles -- with Internet access, cable TV, local and long-distance voice communications all thrown together in one pot -- and at one price. Some seers predict more "cut-rate" long-distance service packages (even "free" minutes) will be the lure to generate consumer interest in those packages.

All this is fine -- but not if it takes an instruction manual to figure out the

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