Getting nickeled and dimed?

Here's how phone companies are simplifying your phone bill Karen Gutloff

Does your phone bill read more like the phone book? Endless pages of charges that leave you scratching your head? If so, you’re not alone. The Federal Communications Commission logs a whopping 10,000 calls each month from people who have questions about their phone bills, says FCC Commissioner William Kennard. “We receive a half-million calls each month from consumers questioning phone charges,” adds Frank Bennett, vice president of customer billing for Bell Atlantic. If you’re one of that growing number, help will soon be on the way.

In response to consumer complaints, the FCC has issued voluntary guidelines for phone companies to follow when issuing phone bills. Consumers can expect to see less-complicated and easy-to-read bills that summarize all the phone services you’ve ordered (such as call waiting or call forwarding) on one page. A separate page or section would list any changes in your service or new charges. Companies providing you with services such as personal 800 numbers or paging devices will be listed by name, along with clear details of what you’re being charged for. The FCC hopes this will make it harder for telemarketers to sneak unauthorized charges onto your bill.

Bell Atlantic has begun test-marketing a newly designed phone bill with 450,000 customers in West Virginia. Beginning early next year, 5 million Bell Atlantic customers in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia will receive the new phone bills. “We’ve done away with the coupon-size pages and moved closer to an 8.5-by-11-inch format,” says Bennett. “The language used to describe what the customer is paying for will be much simpler. Instead of using our technical in-house terms for services like voice- mail boxes or call waiting, we’re going to use the terms the customers use when ordering the service.”

In the meantime, “Consumers should read their phone bills with the same care they would their credit card bill, bank statement or other financial documents,” says Kathie Kneff, special advisor for external communications within the Enforcement Division of the FCC’s Common Carrier Bureau.

The charges on your phone bill are generally divided into two sections. There are fees for local phone service from Bell Atlantic, Bell South, US West or other carriers. Then you have long-distance charges from companies like MCI, AT&T and Sprint. Using a phone bill from a D.C. resident, Kathleen Levy, director of Bell Atlantic’s new express Trak phone bill, offers these explanations of terms that appear on the local- service portion of the phone bill:

  • Monthly service. Fees for phone services such as call waiting, voice-mail boxes and call forwarding. Also includes the rate for limited calls or unlimited local calls.
  • Federally ordered subscriber line charge. Local phone companies charge this fee to help pay the cost of linking your residential service to the national and international phone network. It’s how they recoup the cost of providing outside telephone wires, telephone poles and underground conduits.
  • Service not regulated by public service commission. Typically refers to the insurance policy for your in-home wiring.
  • Gross receipts tax surcharge. Similar to a sales
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