Boy, are the competing phone discount plans ever needlessly — and purposely — complex. It’s like life insurance: they don’t want you to be able to make easy price comparisons.

Sprint has a point about every call costing just a dime. But Sprint’s “dime lady” commercials are so cloying (even though Candace Bergen’s a swell lady), they’re reason enough to stick with AT&T. What’s more, there’s the teeny-tiny catch that the dime is actually a quarter every weekday until 7PM. That’s right: 25-cents a minute, not 10 cents.

Now comes a service called DimeLine. It’s not new, but new to me. And it really does charge just a dime a call. Anytime. Anywhere in the 50 states. Sort of.

I use AT&T. The basic daytime rate approaches 30 cents a minute, but I signed up for True USA savings, that knocks 30% off my bill if I make more than $75 a month in calls, 20% when charges run between $25 and $75 a month, 10% when they run $10 to $25. (You mean you use AT&T and you haven’t signed up for the discount? They must love customers like you. All you have to do to get it is call! Check your phone bill, and if you don’t see a line at the end talking about what you saved with AT&T True USA, try 800-222-0300.)

And I’m also signed up for AT&T True Rewards which gives me five frequent-flier miles for every dollar I spend. Assigning a value of 2 or 3 cents a mile, which is about what they’re worth to me, this becomes the equivalent of another 10% or 15% off my bill, for a total discount of 40% or 45%. (You mean you use AT&T and you haven’t signed up for this, either? They must adore you! This one doesn’t appear on your phone bill, but you get periodic statements of your rewards, and they try to get you to waste them on things less valuable than frequent flier miles. Again, call 800-222-0300 if you’re an AT&T customer who hasn’t signed up.)

After these discounts, night-time and evening calls aren’t much more than a dime for me anyway — sometimes less. But the daytime calls are still upwards of 15 cents, which no matter how you look at it is more than a dime.

I had a 76-minute call to Palo Alto last month for which I was billed $22.80, less the 30%, or $15.96. With Dime Line it would have been $7.60. I would have saved $8.36 on that one humongous call alone, plus another 46 cents in tax. Total saving with the tax: $8.82. Instead, I got 80 frequent flier miles (5 for each of the 16 or so dollars AT&T charged), worth about two bucks.

So why not switch to Dime Line for all your day-time weekday calling? A few possible reasons:

  • It only applies to residential phone lines. Sorry, Sears.
  • There’s a 3-minute minimum, so for those calls where you just get an answering machine and hang up or leave a short message, you’re billed 30 cents, compared with the 15-20 cents it might have cost during the day on AT&T (after your discount and frequent flier miles).
  • There’s a flat $5-a-month access charge, so if you normally make $30 a month in calls on AT&T — which works out to $24.00 after your 20% True USA discount, and $21.00 after figuring in the value of your frequent-flier miles — Dime Line would save you little or nothing. Indeed, if a good chunk of that $30 was for calls after 5PM (evening rate) or after 11PM and weekends (night-time rate), then you might actually wind up spending more.
  • On the other hand, for someone with, say, $100 a month in AT&T weekday long distance charges before 5PM, the savings would be on the order of $30 or $40 a month — maybe $400 a year. Not half bad! Home-office types, take note.
  • If you are someone whose long distance bill is near one of the AT&T break points at which the discount falls, from 30% to 20% or from 20% to 10% (or, below $10 of charges, to zero), then carving the weekday day-time calls out of that and making them with Dime Line could be doubly dumb. First, you could lower your AT&T usage from $26, say, to $24, and knock the discount down from 20% to 10% (thus losing about $2.50). Second, if you only used Dime Line to make a few day-time calls, the $5 flat fee would swamp any savings you got from the low dime-a-minute rate.
  • There’s the hassle of dialing 10811 before proceeding with the usual 1-area code-and-number.

But you don’t have to wait for a second dial tone, you just dial “straight through.” And you don’t have to do anything to sign up for this service. You’re already “signed up,” in the sense that you could start using Dime Line this instant, and would simply find a separate place on your local phone bill next month tallying the charges. And because the first month the $5 access fee is waived, you really have little to lose by giving it a try.

The Dime Line customer service rep I spoke with (800-583-5801) answered promptly and avowed that parent VarTec Telecom, Inc., a privately held company headquartered in Dallas, was founded in 1989 and is now the nation’s 7th largest long-distance carrier. (And here you thought there were only three, so how impressed can you be?) You don’t have to remember to call and cancel the service if you don’t like it, he explained. The $5 access fee is only charged in calendar months when you make calls. So you could try it a few times today, and until the end of this calendar month, with no $5 access fee, and no need to cancel the service. (Or so they promise. Don’t blame me if there’s a billing glitch! I just work here.)

There’s actually a way to beat the $5 fee altogether, it seems to me, if you’re the kind of person obsessed with cutting costs yet possessed of more than one phone number. In May, make all your day-time long distance calls on Phone #1. You’ll be charged just a dime-a-minute with no $5 fee, because it’s the first calendar month you’ve used DimeLine. For the next few months be sure not to use DimeLine with that phone number — even once. Instead, switch to using Dime Line with Phone #2. And so on.

I think the slate wipes clean after 90 days of non-use. If so, and if they don’t change it, you could just keep rotating the phone line you chose to use. Of course, you could always do the decent thing and, if you decide to become a DimeLine customer, just pay the bill. I’m going to try it for a while — for weekday day-time calls only.


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