FCC Makes the Call: Dial for Fewer Dollars

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They're the FICA of your phone bill: those mysterious three-, five- or 10-dollar charges that show up on your phone bill for services you don't really understand. They're called "access fees," and they're basically a tribute that your long-distance carrier has to pay your local phone company for using its wires (and part of the regulatory hangover still lingering after the breakup of AT&T). But never mind all that — they're about to go down. The FCC on Wednesday promised lower July phone bills for everyone after it slashed those fees by $3.2 billion and extracted a promise from phone companies to pass the savings along to customers. "This is the most dramatic reduction in telephone service prices in the history of this agency," gushed FCC chairman William Kennard.

There's more good news. FCC officials and telecom execs alike predict that Wednesday's overhaul will push the land-line phone business further down the road toward flat-fee pricing, with either unlimited usage (rather like an Internet service) or a bundle of minutes (like wireless plans). Will that save you money? The government is optimistic, consumer groups are less so, and the phone companies aren't saying. If price restructuring brings savings, who'll benefit, consumers or stockholders? On Thursday investors, more concerned about this week's economic numbers than the goings-on at the FCC, were noncommittal, with telco stocks showing no sign of a verdict. Time will tell who's going to keep the bulk of the savings — starting with that July phone bill.