10-10 calling rings true

Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — Former Super Bowl quarterback Terry Bradshaw, major league slugger Mike Piazza and TV alien Alf would like you to believe that dialing 10-10-220 is the most affordable way to make long-distance calls.

And they might be correct, depending on where you call and how long you talk.

So-called "dial-around" plans such as 10-10-220 are part of an unwieldy yet lucrative industry involving some 2,000 seven-digit codes, as well as telecommunications giants such as WorldCom Inc. and AT&T and more obscure companies such as WorldXChange and PT-1 Communications.

"This is a complicated industry," said Rich Sayers, who operates the informational Web site 10-10PhoneRates.com. "But it can be very profitable."

The emergence of Internet sites including 10-10PhoneRates.com and SaveonPhone.com has also been a boon for consumers trying to sort out the confusion.

"People can beat the phone companies at their own game," said Sayers, whose Web site is cited by several nonprofit consumer groups and does not, he says, receive funding directly from any of the services it lists.

In 1999, dial-around service accounted for 7.5 percent of the overall long-distance market and $3 billion in revenue, the Federal Communications Commission estimated. It couldn’t provide updated figures, but an analyst said the numbers would be slightly higher today.

Simply put, dial-around calling means doing just that — dialing a seven-digit identification code assigned to a certain carrier that allows a caller to bypass his or her primary phone company.

A person might use a certain dial-around number to call, say, Brazil. Charges for most dial-around calls are included in the local telephone bill.

Dial-around is available only from home phones and some businesses, not from cellular phones.

The service has befuddled so many consumers in recent years that the FCC has investigated how it’s advertised and whether consumers get enough information about rates, restrictions and where to call with billing problems.

Mississippi-based WorldCom, the nation’s No. 2 long-distance carrier behind AT&T, is big on marketing its primary dial-around service, 10-10-220. Through its Telecom USA division, it uses Bradshaw, Piazza, Alf and other celebrities in television pitches.

WorldCom estimates that 15 percent of U.S. households have made at least one dial-around call in the past three months.

"Let’s face it. We’re all influenced by TV ads," said Bill Hardekopf, vice president of SaveonPhone.com. His company ranks the most affordable long-distance plans and considers itself independent — though it does receive fees from companies for which it helps generate business.

WorldCom wouldn’t release information on call volume, but spokeswoman Claire Hassett said the company has several dial-around numbers that target specific calling needs.

"Some people don’t want to be pegged to a long distance company because they make so few calls," Hassett said. "This is a way for them to have an affordable alternative."

Dial-around calling began in the early 1990s as long-distance competition heated up in the wake of the Bell monopoly breakup. These days, some companies have had to start using 10-15 and 10-16 prefixes because 10-10 numbers are all taken. Not all access codes are promoted as discount long-distance services.

Plans and rates vary greatly.

Some companies advertise low state-to-state rates but charge significantly more for in-state calls.

For example, Sayers said 10-16-868 advertises that calls within the United States are 7.9 cents a minute around the clock. But make an in-state call and it can cost you as much as 17.9 cents a minute, he said.

Others things to watch for, regulators say, are per-call connection fees and minimum charges. WorldCom’s 10-10-220 plan will cost you 99 cents whether you get an answering machine or talk for 20 minutes.

Copyright ©2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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