Consumerism

That long-distance feeling gets closer

Diane Francis December 10 1979
Consumerism

That long-distance feeling gets closer

Diane Francis December 10 1979

That long-distance feeling gets closer

The world’s longest telephone call— between a computer at New York University and another at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Centerlasted 42 days and cost only eight cents. For 40 years, telephone customers in the Big Apple have paid for every local call, but not for duration. That marathon “conversation” three years ago led to changes and now all residential customers in New York state are being phased into a system of phone billing according to the number of local calls made and the time of day. And businesses are paying for the length of local calls. Residents of Ontario and Quebec learned last month that in the next few years they, too, may need that long-distance feeling before dialing next door.

Bell Canada’s request to test the “user-pay concept” in at least two medium-sized cities has received approval for the approach from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Beginning in 1982, customers in the yet-to-be-selected test

areas will get their regular flat-rate bills with notations saying how much more or less they would have paid under “local measured service.” CRTC officials say public hearings will be held before any over-all change in rate philosophy is entertained, possibly in 1983. While no other Canadian-owned telephone companies have plans to test, U.S.-

owned B.C. Telephone and the Man times Telegraph and Telephone Com pany (39.2-per-cent owned by Bell Can-

ada) are interested in Bell’s results.

Not surprisingly, the news has drawn protests from groups representing shut-ins, senior citizens and other heavy users of the telephone: distress centres and volunteer organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross Society. The Consumers Association of Canada is concerned that the tremendous financial burden of $100 million to install measuring equipment for Bell’s 5.5 million subscribers would simply be passed along to consumers, says Ontario branch President Miriam Kramer. But, she adds, user-pay is a principle used by other utilities and could be a fairer practice than averaging rates.

Catalogue giant Simpsons Sears Limited is not concerned, although much of its business is over the phone. With the cost of gasoline rising, local phone levies won’t prevent consumers from letting their fingers do the walking, says a spokesman. On a small scale, the concept has already been accepted by about 24,000 Ontario businesses with one phone line. Those in Toronto have opted to pay $16.30 and 6.4 cents per call after their first 125 calls, instead of paying a flat rate of $27.35 a month.

But for senior citizen Kay Fletcher, Ontario spokesman for the 10,000-member Canadian Pensioners Concerned lobby group, local rates would mean a return to the egg-timer-beside-thephone attitude common in Europe and her native England. And tragically, for the elderly on tight budgets, she says, it could spell the difference between independence and loneliness.

In practice, the user-pay concept has already meant a change for the New York Telephone Company which launched zany marketing schemes to boost business after new charges were imposed. In the past few years the company promoted a dial-in program and each day thousands of New Yorkers called Dial-A-Joke, Dial-A-Plant, DialA-Santa or 18 other taped messages. Last year it netted the phone company a tidy $10 million.

Diane Francis