Phone Rates In Cyberspace

Federal regulators approved a plan Thursday that requires long-distance companies to post information about current rates on the Internet.

AT&T, MCI WorldCom and Sprint say they already voluntarily provide rates on their corporate Web sites. But the FCC plan, adopted in a 4-1 vote, will force the companies to do so.

The companies will have to provide information on domestic rates including the terms and conditions of service in a "timely manner and updated regularly." If rates or services are changed, that will have to be posted, too.

Beyond that, the FCC would not specify when information must be posted, how often it must be updated or where it would appear on the companies' corporate Web sites.

The requirement will cover a wide range of services, from domestic long-distance calls to calling card calls to directory assistance. It will not include information on international calls.
The action will go far in "empowering consumers with the information they need to be savvy shoppers," said FCC Chairman Bill Kennard.

Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth dissented, saying the requirement is not needed.

Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Consumers Union's Washington office, said the public disclosure requirement would help make consumers more aware of rate changes. But he acknowledged it would not help those who do not own computers.

To that end, the FCC also required long-distance companies to post current rate information in some of their offices, the officials said.

MCI WorldCom and AT&T said they are not opposed to the public disclosure, but repeated their opposition to getting rid of federal tariffs. Under the century-old doctrine, long-distance companies may charge only the rates for services they have filed with the FCC. The tariff trumps all other agreements with customers, verbal or otherwise. Some critics contend the arrangement lets companies slip rate changes by customers.

But MCI WorldCom and AT&T contend that in the absence of tariffs, companies would have to enter into some other contract with customers each time rates or services were changed. That would make it harder for them to offer new discount plans or promotions featuring free or cheap calls, they note.

But Kimmelman and other critics said that consumers would be better served by posting rate information online than by putting it in tariffs, which the average long-distance customer does not see.

Assuming the court upholds the FCC on its decision to eliminate tariffs, officials contemplate that long-distance companies voluntarily would move toward a more "contractual relationship" with customers along the lines of credit-card companies that provide notice in the mail when terms change.