Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 42 / NOVEMBER 1983 / PAGE 49

Guest Commentary

The High Cost Of Personal Telecommunications

Robert Braver

As telecommunication becomes an increasingly important aspect of home computing, the telephone rates and hookup fees are of interest to both the consumer and the telephone companies. Robert Braver, President of the Oklahoma Modem Users Group, raises some important issues in this guest commentary. We contacted South-western Bell of Oklahoma, and the remarks of their spokesperson are included.

Sometime in mid-May, 1983, I called my local Bell business office to request that a trace be placed on my bulletin board system's phone line. Someone had been calling up my system and tying it up for an hour at a time by sitting at the prompt which asks for a user ID number.

When requesting a trace, you must describe the type of calls you have been receiving. I thought that since these calls were not voice messages, there would more than likely be confusion when I tried to explain things to the business office representative. I expected to need about half an hour to explain exactly what a modem and bulletin board system is. After all, I had to do that when I first had the phone line installed a year ago.

There Must Be Some Mistake

To my surprise, she seemed to know all about modems. In fact, she informed me that since I used a modem on my phone line, I would have to pay a higher monthly phone rate.

Of course, I thought she must be mistaken. Perhaps she was referring to the "Data Perfect" lines, which are used for high-speed (2400 baud) transmissions. I didn't need a special line for my relatively slow 300 baud modem. Even 1200 baud modems do fine on ordinary phone lines.

After about two weeks of arguing with Bell business office representatives, insisting that there must be some mistake, I received a copy of a tariff sheet from the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. Bell was right. Their tariffs do call for the charging of a higher rate for connecting a computer using a modem to the phone lines.

This section of Southwestern Bell's Oklahoma tariffs, called Information Terminal Service tariffs, was written in the mid-sixties. Obviously, this was long before there were home computers. When the tariffs were written, generally the only modem users were large corporations transmitting data 24 hours a day. Therefore, the rates for having a computer or similar device connected to the phone lines with a modem were somewhat higher.

Because there were no home computers when the tariffs were written, Bell had no reason to distinguish between commercial and residential modem use. And now, almost 20 years later, Southwestern Bell is using those tariffs to charge personal computer users five times their normal phone rate if they wish to use modems with their personal computers.

An Organized Response

Since this tariff would seriously inhibit home modem use in Oklahoma, I immediately organized the Oklahoma Modem Users Group, or OMUG, to challenge Southwestern Bell and its unfair tariff.

OMUG's main goal is to organize the modem users of Oklahoma and to undertake whatever legal proceedings are deemed necessary to force Bell to exempt home modem users from the Provisions of Information Terminal Service tariffs.

As of this writing, legal proceedings are still in the future. OMUG has recently been raising funds and attempting to gain the support of home computer and modem manufacturers. OMUG has also been publicizing the situation to make sure that all modem users nationwide as well as the general public know about this problem.

Not Limited To Oklahoma

This situation, it turns out, may not be unique to Oklahoma. There are similar outdated tariffs in other states. And many experts in the industry seem to think that if Southwestern Bell is justified in charging higher rates to modem users in Oklahoma, it is just a matter of time before other states adopt similar tariffs or start enforcing their present tariffs (also written in the sixties).

According to the tariff, anyone connecting "customer-provided data transmitting and receiving equipment that processes data and/or performs calculations" including computers, associated buffering devices, and/or concentrating devices with store and forward capabilities would all be subject to the higher rate. Although dumb terminals do not fall under the tariff, computers emulating dumb terminals do. And anyway, most terminal software packages have memory buffers, auto-logon capabilities, and other features. Furthermore, most so-called dumb terminals on the market today have memory buffers and microprocessors, which cause them to also fall under the tariff.

Information Terminal Service is considered a business service. Therefore, as of July 11, 1983 (when Bell raised my rate), if I have a problem with the modem line, I don't call the residential division, but the business division of the Bell business office. As a "business," I am entitled to a free yellow pages listing in the telephone directory. But since I do not run a business, and having the ad might hamper chances of obtaining a court order to restore my old rate, I declined the free listing.

But even without the yellow pages listing, I was told by the manager of the Bell business office that once a line is classified as a business, it cannot be restored to residential status. I would have to have the line disconnected, and pay $80 to have a new number installed.

Is The Phone Company Justified?

Bell seems to think that its tariff is perfectly justified. Southwestern Bell's Rate and Separations Division Manager Charles Sutter spoke to a group of 40 home computer owners here in Oklahoma City in response to the outrage over the tariff. He was asked how Bell could justify charging a personal computer owner who uses CompuServe once a week the same rate as a large corporation transmitting data 24 hours a day. Sutter replied, "Well, I don't know how much you use your modem."

There is no physical justification for an additional charge for modems. Modems operating at speeds of up to 1200 baud do not require special lines. The four frequencies that 300 baud modems use are among the frequencies in human speech, and easily fall between the 300-3000 Hz bandwidth of an ordinary telephone line.

And for most modem users, on-line time doesn't increase phone usage any more than having a teenager does.

But Bell persists in charging the higher rate. Although representatives claim that Bell is not actively pursuing computerists with modems, anyone who follows the law and registers his modem with the phone company will be immediately notified of the extra charge.

The Phone Company Replies

In response to the issues raised here concerning the extra charges imposed on modem users, Walt Beiter, an official of Southwestern Bell of Oklahoma, told us: "With the spread of computer terminals in the home, we recognize that the situation has changed. We're going to redesign our rates." The old rate schedule "didn't specify home, business, whatever. But we do realize that the conditions have changed. We've filed an application and expect to have hearings on this issue this fall."

In the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas, we have a flat-rate system for phone billing. We pay a basic flat rate of $8.95 for a residential phone line. This allows you to dial anywhere in the local calling area at no additional charge. If you want to attach your computer to the phone lines via a modem, that flat rate jumps to $45.90. Also, the additional monthly charge for Touch-Tone dialing almost triples from $1.25 to $3.50.

On top of the additional monthly rates, Southwestern Bell also retroactively charged me the difference between a business and residential phone installation because they "should have charged [me] for a business installation in the first place. [They] made a mistake."

It is my opinion that if they charge me this rate, they must also charge everyone else who falls under the tariff. If they do start actively enforcing the tariff, which they have the capability to do, there wouldn't be much modem use in Oklahoma. And modem sales in the state would almost cease entirely.

If Oklahoma is just a test, and no one takes any concrete, effective action, there is a good possibility that this is just the beginning of unreasonable charges for personal telecommunication.