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WebPricer Helps Decode the Mysteries of Long-Distance Rates
Online calculator compares prices of major long-distance carriers

A potential runaway cost for any small business is its long-distance telephone bill. But with a plethora of long-distance companies offering different plans, researching the best deal often seems more trouble than it's worth.

Enter the Telecommunications Research & Action Center Web site -- TRAC is a nonprofit organization that says its raison d'être is to promote the interests of consumers of telecom services. To that end, it has created a sort of calculator called a WebPricer, accessible through the site, that lets you compare plans and prices of interstate calls for six of the leading U.S. long-distance carriers.

To use WebPricer, fill out a short online form that asks for your area code and up to six area codes and prefixes that you call most frequently. The form then prompts you to fill in the average length of time of the phone calls you want to compare, and if you want to see daytime, evening, or weekend rates. WebPricer then churns out comparable costs of calling via AT&T, Excel, GTE, LCI, MCI, and Matrix. (Qwest is not yet on the list, but it has been receiving high marks for its low-cost service from small businesses, TRAC says.)

Business Week Online chose MCI, Sprint, and AT&T and compared prices to Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., from New York during peak hours, when most businesses do their calling. WebPricer gave us rates for low-, middle- and high-cost plans for all three carriers. Under the low-cost plans, MCI came back as the winner with its MCI WorldCom One Net Savings, offering 9 cents a minute. If you made a 15-minute call to each area, the total for the six calls would cost $8.10. AT&T's One Rate Online and Sprint's Sense AnyTime plans charge 10 cents a minute, with the six calls costing $9. Rates went as high as 30 cents a minute for Sprint's MTS Basic service, which would cost you $26.85 for all six 15-minute calls. More precisely, the 15-minute call to San Francisco, which would cost you $1.35 on MCI's budget plan, would wind up costing you $4.65 with Sprint's high-end MTS Basic service. So, it's pretty easy to see how you can save.

Of course, per-minute charges don't give you the complete picture of your costs, because there are monthly flat fees in many instances. WebPricer tells you that information, too. But the real additional cost per call with the monthly charge will depend on how many calls you make. For instance, the MCI WorldCom One Net Savings plan comes with a monthly charge of $5, while AT&T's One Rate Online service only charges $1. And Sprint's Sense AnyTime service will waive its $4.95 charge if your bill is more than $30 a month.

WebPricer lets you know which plans bill in less than one-minute decrements, another cost saver, and it lists those that have different rates on certain days of the week. There is also a special hotlinks page at TRAC to the Web page of these six long-distance carriers. TRAC recommends checking back from time to time. The carriers change their pricing frequently, so the site is updated each week. You'll still have to revisit periodically to see if your phone company's deal is still competitive. But at least when those pesky phone-company telemarketers interrupt your dinner, you'll know which ones to hang up on.

By Jeremy Quittner in New York

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