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 The Brancatelli File

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ROULETTE


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

October 14, 1997 -- There is this image that I can't get out of my head: business travelers all over the world putting pay phones to their skulls and then pulling the triggers by dialing.

It's sort of like Russian Roulette for frequent flyers. Pick up a phone in an airport or in a hotel room and then, without regard for our fiscal safety, punch in numbers on the keypad. God knows if or when the damn thing will go off.

Only later--when we get our phone bill or check out of our room--do we know if we've had our brains splattered all over our expense accounts. Was that credit-card call routed through some "alternate-operator service" and billed at $9.50 for two minutes? Did the hotel slap a $2 surcharge on every call to our long-distance carrier's toll-free access number?

I guess all these colorful--if gory--images have been dancing around in my brain because the Federal Communications Commission deregulated pay phones last week. Quietly, obfuscating all the way, the FCC "detariffed" the nation's approximately 2.1 million coin-operated public phones.

What that means is that states can no longer regulate the cost of a call made from a pay phone. The 25-cent local pay phone call, like the 10-cent pay phone call before it, is now an endangered species. Local coin calls are likely to jump to 35 or even 50 cents in the coming weeks and months.

Now don't go pursing your lips and rolling your eyes. I see you through the computer screen feeling holier-than-thou, thinking, "Who uses coins anyway? I always use my calling card and I always dial my long-distance carrier's toll-free access number."

Your calling-card rates are going to go up, too.

That's because the folks who own those pay phones are demanding a bigger chunk of the money you pay to your long-distance carrier for your credit-card calls. And while long-distance carriers and pay-phone owners haven't agreed on a specific payout, long-distance carriers are already on record as saying they are willing to increase the amount of money they pay public-phone owners whenever you use a pay phone to make a credit-card call.

And where do you think that the long-distance companies are going to get the extra scratch? From us, of course, in the form of higher and higher calling-card rates. The calling-card rate hikes could be 10 percent. Or 20 percent. Nobody really knows.

Which brings me back to those gory images. Like most every business traveler, I'd rather not think about telephones. I'd like to use the phone in my hotel room with impunity. I'd like to march up to any pay phone in the world, punch in a number and not worry about whether some boiler-room operation is diverting my call and charging me $65 a minute for a 65-cents-a-minute call.

But, no, we can't do that. We have to read that stupid card that the hotels put by our phone--or maybe they thoughtfully relocated the card to the closet--to figure out whether they mark up long-distance calls by a zillion percent and if they're charging us for 800-number calls. We have to dial a string of numbers as long as our arm at airport pay phones to make sure our credit-card call isn't diverted to Sid's Phone Company. And you know Sid: He learned how to price phone calls the same place the airlines learned how to price airline seats.

So do we have any options? A few, but they ain't cheap or easy:

1) If you've got a cellular phone, fire the sucker up. Don't use a pay phone or a guestroom phone anywhere at any time. I know cell-phone rates are high, but at least you get to negotiate those prices and play one hungry provider against another. And when you consider that I recently paid $4.44 for a one-minute credit-card call that got routed through an alternate-operator service, cell phone rates don't look so bad by comparison.

2) Send E-mail instead. It's faster, more efficient and eliminates telephone tag. Get yourself a wireless modem (they fit into most laptop PC-card slots) and circumvent hotel-room and public phones.

3) If all else fails, use the callback method. Call whomever you need to reach, give them your hotel room or pay-phone number and ask them to call you back.

Not perfect solutions, I admit. But I am tired of playing Telephone Roulette, tired of having hoteliers tell me why they need to inflate the cost of their calls and tired of being duped by the alternate-operator services that lurk behind every pay phone.

If it gets any worse, I may actually have to start writing letters again. Is the Post Office still in business?

This column originally appeared at TheTrip.com.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.