For decades Americans have assumed, correctly, that they could call "800" telephone numbers free, any time and from any )) telephone.
But as a result of the federal government's deregulation of the telecommunications industry, consumers may soon find that they are unable to call some toll-free numbers from the nation's roughly 2 million public pay phones.
In a little-noticed move that could cost U.S. consumers and businesses almost $1 billion a year, the Federal Communications Commission ruled in October that owners of toll-free numbers must pay a fee of 28.4 cents a call to owners of pay phones when customers dial a toll-free line from a public phone.
What is more, the same ruling adds the same charge to each calling-card call and collect call made from a pay phone.
In the wake of that decision, Jackson, Miss.-based Mobile
Telecommunication Technologies Corp. and Dallas-based Pagemart Wireless Inc., paging companies with more than 3 million customers between them, have decided to block all calls to their toll-free numbers from public phones rather than pay the fee.
And most of the nation's other large paging operators have decided to levy new charges against customers whose pagers use a toll-free number.
Companies that depend on calls from pay phones to their toll-free lines, from airlines to trucking companies to hotel operators, say that the ruling could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in new costs.
The ruling highlights the difficulty of deregulating the nation's $200 billion telecommunications industry.
Breaking old monopolies has also entailed shifting the complex structure of costs that have allowed services such "800" and "888" calls to remain free for consumers.
Pub Date: 12/08/97