Long-distance reselling has been with us as an industry since 1989. Its practitioners purchase huge blocks of phone time in bulk at deep discounts from facilities-based carriers such as AT&T. Then they mark up and sell the time to long-distance users such as small businesses. Until recently, choosing a reliable reseller has often been a risky venture because a few disreputable hustlers have given the industry a bad rep. Now, though, resellers have formed a national trade group that has cleaned things up, and such reputable merchants as General Electric, Hertz, and Avis recently have entered the market with reseller divisions of their own.

A company that spends as little as $100 a month with conventional long-distance carriers can save by switching to a reseller, claims Telegroup, an established reseller in Fairfield, Iowa. Telegroup's average customer spends $400 a month and saves up to 20% of the cost of using a major carrier. When a Telegroup customer presses the universal "1" to begin a long-distance call, that call flows along the same lines everyone else uses but is automatically billed to Telegroup at bulk rates. Telegroup charges the customer on a per-call basis; the customer is not obliged to absorb a given level of use.

Industry watchdog Telecommunications Resellers Association (TRA) is the main source for finding and selecting a reseller in your region. Some of its recommendations:

Shop around, and ask for referrals.

Insist that salespeople compare savings with the specific long-distance package you're already using (not with your carrier's general rates).

Ask about coverage; some resellers service only limited geographic areas.

Just in case, make sure that you can go back to your former phone company without hassles.

For a list of resellers in your area, write to TRA, P.O. Box 8361, McLean, VA 22106-8361. -- Phaedra Hise

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Lexicon of Long-Distance Reselling
Facilities-based carrier: A long-distance provider, such as AT&T, MCI, or Sprint, that owns or otherwise controls its own physical network.

Reseller: A company that purchases large blocks of long-distance- transmission capacity from facilities-based carriers at wholesale prices and markets portions to small users. A reseller usually sends out its own bills and assumes responsibility for phone service.

Aggregator: An independent middleman who first rounds up a cadre of small users and then buys a packaged discount from a facilities-based carrier, passing on to the users a percentage of the savings. Bills and service generally come directly from the carrier.

-- P. H.

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