John Kimball was out-raged at a $15 phone bill for a brief call he made to Spokane from a Post Falls pay phone.
His complaint to the Federal Communications Commission became one of more than 4,280 last year lodged against alternative “operator service providers.”
Ninety percent of those complaints were about high rates.
The single company attracting the most complaints - 1,024 to be exact - was Oncor Communications, Inc., the company that Kimball says overcharged him.
The FCC recently ordered Oncor to reduce its high rates or justify them in a hearing. It’s the first action the FCC has taken in a series of investigations against alternative long-distance companies.
Oncor is fighting to keep its rates, which are often three to four times more than those charged by AT&T;, according to the FCC.
Kimball, 70, spent months pursuing his complaint, and even made a test phone call to another Spokane friend in February.
The three-minute call cost $10.89.
“I try to improve the lot of all of us, by sticking my neck out,” Kimball said. “I’m a crank, but without the crank, the car won’t run.”
Kimball doesn’t have a phone at his downtown Post Falls home, so he walks to a nearby pay phone, often at the Sub Shop on Spokane Street.
During the $15 call that prompted his complaint, “I had nothing to ask my friend, but ‘Are you going to be home tomorrow’,” Kimball recalls.
When Kimball’s friend got the bill for the call, he shared it with Kimball, who took it to Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, Rep. Helen Chenoweth and Sen. Larry Craig.
Kempthorne passed the complaint along to the FCC, which in turn contacted Oncor. Oncor defended its rates in a return letter to the FCC, and gave Kimball a one-time rebate of $5.15.
Because the phone call originated in Idaho, the rates were not regulated.
Washington has capped long distance rates at 25 percent above AT&T;’s rates.
But Idaho does not regulate long-distance rates. Companies only have to tell the state how much they charge, and make that information available to consumers.
“Some folks out there are charging phenomenal rates,” said Jim Long, the lone pay phone cop for the Idaho utilities commission.
The commission gets lots of complaints, including many from consumers in jails and rest homes, Long said.
Idaho has about 6,800 pay phones, 4,800 of which are operated by local exchange companies, such as GTE Northwest or US West. The local exchange companies often contract with AT&T; to provide long distance services, but are required by a 1989 court ruling to use other long distance carriers, too.
Both Washington and Idaho require that pay phones be labeled with the long distance provider. Also in both states, phone companies must allow callers to use other long distance carriers.
Long said he often finds that the information posted on the card on the front of a pay phone is inaccurate.
“We’re finding more and more that the label does not keep up with the change,” Long said. “Companies buy other companies. Labels have to be printed or installed.”
The phone business is so competitive that companies vie for pay-phone sites. They offer property owners commissions or a certain amount of free long distance service.
Property owners are “looking for the best possible deal,” said GTE spokesman Bob Wayt. “But they also have to be prepared for any complaints they might get for the telephone.”
While Oncor is considered one of the biggest and most aggressive in the business, it recently lost its Sub Shop account to LDDS Metromedia Communications - one of the largest long distance carriers in the country.
“We just switched phones two months ago,” said Sub Shop manager Calvin Wiley.
“With this one, we’re seeing 20 percent revenue. We’re actually making money off of it now.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Tips Want to make an operator-assisted call from a pay telephone? Don’t assume that the rates will be the same as you would pay from home. Shop around, not all pay phones are equal. A variety of companies can provide long-distance service from pay phones, and the rates can vary with every location. To find the rates, call the operator. The name of the company should be on the phone. The company is required to identify itself before the call’s over. You should be able to use any long-distance carrier from any pay phone. To save money, use a calling card or an access code provided by your preferred long-distance phone company. Some companies also provide debit cards, which are prepaid and work like a calling card.