The long-distance Big Three -- AT&T, Sprint, and MCI -- have been outdoing one another in trying to entice ordinary folk to dial their friends more. One gimmick is a personal identification number, assigned to each designated caller, that's punched into the touchpad so the home number gets the bill. Maybe that will stimulate college kids to chat with their moms, but special codes are unwieldy for businesses to dispense to customers. An alternative is an available-to-all-callers 800 number that rings on a home telephone along with ordinary incoming calls. But the Big Three's basic fees -- charged monthly in addition to tolls -- can mount up: an 800 number from MCI is $20 a month; from Sprint, $15; from AT&T, $20. (AT&T also charges $43.50 for installation, although it's done electronically from afar.)

The giants are being challenged by four-year-old Call Home America (CHA), which contracts to buy 800 numbers in discounted bulk from AT&T, MCI, and Sprint, then resells them relatively cheaply. Although CHA's marketing currently is aimed at families, the lower price accommodates home businesses as well.

CHA's monthly service fee is a mere $3.75, and tolls are competitive. (See table, below.) The entrepreneurial company makes its margins by collecting exclusively through credit cards, so there's no billing overhead.

Because 800-number costs are predictably intricate -- varying by distance, frequency, and time of day -- a home businessperson should get out a calculator for the final analysis. Here are some basic charges for 800 home service*:

Fee per Instal- 3.5 minutes, 3.5 minutes, 3.5 minutes,
Company month lation NY to LA* NY to DC* in-state*
AT&T $20.00 $43.50 $0.90 $0.83 $0.62
MCI 20.00 none 0.91 0.88 0.53
Sprint 15.00 none 0.74 0.74 0.46
CHA 3.75 none 0.84 0.84 0.98

*calculated from business-hours rates quoted on October 9, 1992

-- Robert A. Mamis