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MCI once again has knocked AT&T for a loop.

The latest punch: the introduction of MCI's stealthiest market share growth tool ever, 1-800-CALL-INFO.

Cleverly harnessing directory assistance to lure callers to its lines, MCI's latest gambit offers worldwide telephone number information for 75 cents a call plus instant connection to the requested number.

The catch, of course, is that users agreeing to the convenience of instant connection are also agreeing to pay MCI's regular, non-discount rates for the entire call-even if the user is an AT&T or Sprint subscriber.

MCI executives say 1-800-CALL-INFO, introduced Oct. 11 and backed by an estimated $3 million network, spot and cable TV campaign from Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, is already a hit. Initial response parallels MCI's May 1993 launch of 1-800-COLLECT.

Enraged by MCI's unpredictable moves, which came just as the No. 1 long-distance carrier was regaining marketing momentum with the True long-distance campaign, AT&T is crying foul and has turned to its lawyers to try to block its rival.

AT&T last week filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, claiming 1-800-CALL-INFO violates the 1992 Federal Telephone & Dispute Resolution Act.

MCI is unconcerned.

"This is just another case of AT&T trying to derail MCI in offering a very successful and innovative new service, and they're not going to win," said Patricia Proferes, director of 1-800-CALL-INFO.

MCI is advertising its new service heavily in three 30-second spots, including one featuring a voice-over by actor Tony Randall describing the tedium of traditional directory assistance calls that require consumers to know the area code to find a number. CALL-INFO asks only for a city to locate numbers anywhere in the world.

Both AT&T and No. 3 carrier Sprint also say MCI's information isn't up to par with the directory assistance both rely on from local telephone companies across the U.S. for a 75 cents fee.

Sprint even opted against offering a similar directory assistance calling plan earlier this year, because "the quality of the directory information obtained from sources other than local telephone companies was seriously flawed," said Gary Owens, VP-service for Sprint's Consumer Services Group.

The FCC is exploring AT&T's complaint. The rule it cites was created to protect consumers from widespread 800-number abuses that automatically charged unsuspecting consumers for everything from sales pitches to pornography.

AT&T says it's getting complaints from some hotels and universities, which say 1-800-CALL-INFO is prompting guests, employees and students to use internal telephones to make unauthorized long-distance calls.

MCI counters that hotels and institutions are safeguarded against such abuse.

Interestingly, AT&T has offered an automatic connection service to users of its calling card since August 1993, for 85 cents in addition to its own 75 cents directory assistance fee, but AT&T has never advertised the service.

Local telephone companies, like the seven Baby Bells and GTE Corp., are eagerly watching AT&T's battle with MCI because each provides directory assistance to all carriers in its area for varying fees.

"It's a profitable business that we like to be in," said Terri Latter, director of number services for Chicago-based local telephone company Ameritech. She said Ameritech has no immediate plans to market its directory assistance services.

Neither AT&T nor Sprint has revealed plans to counter MCI's CALL-INFO in advertising.

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