Charged up over your phone bill? : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Charged up over your phone bill? By LORI CUMPSTON Ken Reif is an expert on consumer issues.

Yet when it comes to phone bills, even he can't decipher the maze of gobbledygook that greets customers each month.

"I'm in this business and I can't even explain it to my wife," says Reif, director of the Office of Consumer Counsel in Denver.

Reif says he spends much of his day fielding complaints from angry telephone customers.

The most frequent complaint by customers is that they don't understand what they are paying for.

"Different carriers label the elements of the bill differently," explains Reif. "There are three or four surcharges imposed by the government and you can't tell what they are. It's maddening."

Truth-in-Billing required by the FCC

The phone bill confusion can be traced back to the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act, which paved the way for deregulation, making the market competitive.

Prior to the act, surcharges were included in the basic rate charge.

Add to that a myriad of services available to consumers Internet access, voice mail, caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, unpublished numbers, long distance and it all adds up to one big headache.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission ordered phone service providers to clean up their act. The result was the Truth-in-Billing guidelines aimed at making phone bills more consumer friendly.

The guidelines outline three basic principles every consumer should know: who is asking them to pay for service, what services they are paying for and where to call to get information about the services appearing on their bill.

Qwest Communications this summer merged with trouble-plagued U S West.

"Qwest has been ahead of the curve with our bill format," says Audrey Mautner, a spokesperson for Qwest Corporate Communications. "The company has worked with and supported the FCC's goal of billing reform."

The redesigned bill, known as the "Easy Bill," went into effect last summer.

Telephone charges divided into six categories

Here's what you need to know when it comes to decoding your phone bill.

Telephone charges are broken down into six categories:

basic local phone service

optional services

unregulated services

local long distance service

long distance service

state and federal charges and taxes.

Basic service, like your phone line, is a must for you to use your phone. Also listed under basic service is a federal charge called Service Provider Number Portability. Number portability lets consumers keep their existing phone number when they switch to a different provider. In Colorado, customers are given a credit for this charge because of an agreement among U S West, the Office of Consumer Counsel and the Public Utilities Commission due to U S West's delays in providing service.

The next section on your bill is optional services. Optional services are services ordered by the consumer and are not necessary to use your phone. Caller ID would be considered an optional service.

Voice messaging is an example of an unregulated service.

Monthly service is a summary of the basic service and optional service. It also contains a host of federal and state charges.

Leading the pack is the Federal Access Charge, which is mandated by the FCC. The charge helps pay the cost of supplying a phone line from your house to the local phone company.

Another charge you'll see is the Colorado Universal Service Charge. This charge is mandated by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to ensure that phone service is affordable across the state. Colorado consumers currently receive a credit for the basic local service portion of the charge because of a penalty agreement among U S West, the Office of Consumer Counsel and the Public Utilities Commission. The credit remains in effect until 2004.

The Colorado Telecommunications Relay Service Fund was created for a relay service that allows hearing-impaired consumers to communicate with those who can hear.

The 911 surcharge pays for emergency service communications.

The Municipal Charge is tacked on by local phone companies to pay for the fees charged by the local municipality.

Underneath the Monthly Service Section is the Service Additions and Changes.

This is where any credits will appear. There is also something called the Service Quality Credit Per Commission Order. The one-time credit was ordered by the Public Utilities Commission as settlement for service-related problems by U S West.

Shop around for a long distance provider

When it comes to long distance, the best advice is to shop around. Many companies offer a variety of plans and pricing structures. When shopping around for a long distance carrier, ask how much they charge for the Federal Universal Service Fund.

This charge also is called Universal Connectivity Charge by AT&T, Federal Universal Service Fee by MCI and Carrier Universal Service Charge by Sprint.

The fund pays for making local phone service affordable for certain low-income consumers and consumers living in high-cost areas. A portion of the funds also goes to schools, libraries and health care providers. The amount of the charge varies by carrier.

The Presubscribed Interexchange Carrier Charge, also known as the Carrier Line Charge, pays for the cost of the local long distance network when long distance providers send calls over their switches. This charge only applies to business with multiple phone lines.

When choosing a long distance provider, consumers should be aware if the plan they have selected has set monthly fees regardless of how many calls are made or a monthly minimum where consumers are still charged even if they didn't make any long distance calls.

It's also a good idea to read your phone bill every month to make sure you haven't been slammed, which is having your long distance provider changed without your authorization. Cramming is the practice of charging consumers for products and services that were not ordered.

And finally, beware of filling out contest entry forms unless you read the fine print. You may be unwittingly signing up for phone services or changing your long distance provider without even knowing it.

{M4Lori Cumpston can be reached via e-mail at

-- Martin Thompson (, November 27, 2000

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