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How Long Distance Works - Ring. Ring.

Today you can pick up the phone and in just a few seconds be talking to another person thousands of miles away. It’s amazing really when you think about it, but it so commonplace an event that most don’t appreciate this, until it doesn’t work anytime, that is.

The industry has many carriers since the regulatory breakup of AT&T in 1984. This giant was cut down as the ‘baby bells’ were formed as separate regional services, many of whom now are allowed to provide long distance services. Add these to the other large carriers with their own fiber-optic networks that equal AT&T in quality, and hundreds of smaller companies that are ‘resellers’, (they lease blocks of time on the big boys’ networks and sell this on rather than installing their own) and you have an extremely competitive market out there, which can be great for saving money, if you can wade through all the sales hype to find what call plan you’re looking for.

But how does this everyday marvel work anyhow?

The calls

It all starts for a typical home with your handset which is a simple device for turning your voice into an analog signal (unless you have a digital phone, of course) and then transmitting it. This signal travels through a line made up of a pair of copper wires out of your house and, if you have underground phone lines rather than the aerial version suspended between poles, they disappear into a box. Here your line joins with you neighbors’ and all these two-pair cables are spliced into a 25 or 50-pair wire. Your call now goes up this cable, which travels through the streets of your neighborhood until it meets up with another larger, main box which is the junction box for the main line running past it. This line could be fiber-optic, co-ax or copper wires. The new box is powered or active (the previous pair being passive), and has digitizers inside it. This is where your call joins the multiplexed line that ends at your local switch and the fiber-optic national network.

Why fiber-optic?

Fiber-optic cables are made up of multiple micro-thin fibers of glass which carry vast quantities of digital data at the speed of light. They have more capacity, and are lighter and thinner than copper wires, so more can be used in a given space, and have much less signal loss. This means they are cheaper because only relatively low power transmitters are required. They are also safer with no fire hazard as only light pulses and not electricity passes through them.

Back to the calls as computers kick-in

This computerized switch gains access to a database which holds information about every phone number connected to it. This information is called Primary Interexchange Carrier codes (PIC codes) and informs the switch what long distance carrier you have chosen. The PIC codes are all each unique to the 1200 or so companies and the code associated with your phone number changes whenever you change carriers. Your call now connects with a long distance switch of that particular carrier which then makes sure routing is correctly done to the local carrier’s switch at the destination of your call. From here it travels on down the lines as before but in reverse until your friend or relatives phone rings to let them know they’re wanted.

So it’s like a road system really, with local tracks and roads leading to larger and wider highways. And like on highways, signposts are needed for our imaginary car (the call) to take the right route and miss out on any wrong turns.

Phone numbers are sign-posts

This is what the numbers are for. The ’1’ identifies the call as long distance, and then we have ten more to go. All telephone numbers in the U.S. have 10 digits (fixed length), but in many other countries they can differ in length depending on the size of the respective town or city.

The American system was designed by AT&T in 1947 and the first three make up the area code which is chosen for a given geographical location like a large city, a state or a portion of a state. These codes are controlled by the U.S. government through the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and there are 215 of these in use today.

Each area code contains 7,920,000 allowable numbers out of the ten million possible which for alleged convenience are divided into 792 groups or blocks of 10,000 each. The long distance companies then pay to own these blocks to assign to their individual customers’ phone lines. This method is criticized by some because if the phone companies do not allocate all of the numbers in their blocks; these are then wasted because access to them for other carriers is denied.

The next three numbers are known as the prefix and designate the local switch your telephone line is connected to. Though now, if your local provider supports Local Number Portability (LNP), you can move your home or business and come under the watch of a different switch in your area without changing your number.

The final four digits in a phone number is the line number, which the local switch assigns to your own phone line.

So numbers not only tell the computers that run the networks where to send your call, but how as well.

What type of long distance is your long distance? How the charges work.

What type of call is it anyway? Long distance calls are not all the same, but divided into five separate groupings.

Companies may or may not explain this to you when you sign up with them. Be careful that you check the fine print because these different types of calls can be charged at very different rates and the ‘typical’ rate or charge quoted on their glossy ads may only refer to averages calculated on one of them.

The first type is simple enough.

Toll-free to 1-800 numbers is self-explanatory; whoever you’re calling pays the toll, not you.

Welcome to LATA’s

Before we go through the next four you need to know what a LATA is. This acronym stands for Local Access Transport Area; which are geographic locations within every state in the union where long distance calls are carried to and from.

  • InterLata (or Intrastate or in-state) - These are calls from one LATA to another LATA, but within the same state.
  • IntraLata (also known as the delightfully paradoxical sounding ‘local long distance’ or ‘local toll’) - These are phone calls that require the ‘1’ and then the area code to be dialed even though they are within the same area code as the caller.
  • Interstate (alternatively state-to-state or out-of-state) - Calls from the LATA you are in to a LATA in a different state.
  • International - Phone calls from your LATA to a different country. These rates can fluctuate wildly. Did you know that when you dial 011 (the international access code) and then the respective country code, a part rate of the call’s cost is taken up by the other nation’s phone company or companies for taking care of the inbound half of the connection? So you may have to pay them at their fees as well as your own carrier for the same call! Depending on what country it is, international phone calls from the U.S. to cell phones abroad (known as mobile phones or just ‘mobiles’ in many places around the world) can also be a lot more expensive than calls to land-lines. So if you’ve got an international call plan; make sure the countries you call are included and that, if they are not all the most industrially advanced of lands, calls to there from the United States don’t get routed to other nations first, they being utilized as throughways.

Prepaid phone cards, how they could work against you

Maybe you just use prepaid phone cards for all your long distance calls, this is widely believed to be much simpler than worrying about your monthly bills. Some are great, no doubt about it, but some are not, and far from it.

Most problems with baffling extra charges do transfer from bills to the cards. There are still taxes and fees that your long distance (and local) carrier can pass on or not at their discretion.

When is a minute not a minute?

Those per-minute-costs can be well worth a close check.

Your billing increments should be as low as you can get. Some can be outrageously high, even as much as five minutes. So you can lose five minutes of call time for calls of less than one minute in duration. A one minute increment means talking for a single minute plus one second counts as talking for two minutes; and half minute increments denote losing a whole minute of time for 31 seconds of chat. Choose low increments for low charges.

However, were it as simple as that. Here’s how some other cons work:

  • Minimum call lengths. Are there any of these before your stated increments begin?
  • What about special rates for time of day or certain days? Look out for them.
  • Is an exorbitant connection fee part of the set-up?
  • Is there a maintenance fee?
  • What about a service charge?

These are tricks for both monthly bills and prepaid cards, but the cards come with some of their own as well:

  • Activation fees. (Or setup fees, as they can be known with no apparent irony!)
  • Delivery charges if you ordered the cards on the web.
  • An expiration date that might be a lot sooner than you presumed.
  • Pay-phone surcharges. The FCC does allow this, but don’t specify the fee rate, and thus card issuers can fix their surcharges at differing amounts.
  • Access numbers should always be viewed with suspicion as well, if they’re always busy, it doesn’t matter how good your deal was, you won’t ever get the chance to use it!

You’re not a cow, so don’t end up getting milked

Of course some companies will milk you for all you’re worth, that recent uproar over misleading advertising for the dial-around services, or ‘10-10 numbers’ prove that. But there are some carriers who care about their reputations and will be relatively straight forward. So shop around, ask who you know what they do about their long distance requirements, and don’t be afraid to complain to the FCC if you’re getting a raw deal. It is what the regulator is there for after all, and no company likes to be fined or get bad publicity.

Get what you want, by knowing what you want

Remember that there is no plan that is perfect for everybody, how much do you talk long distance anyway? Some plans are better for casual users, and penalize for regular or heavy use. Some favor the middle road or the latter, and cost more if you use it less.

At the end of the day though, it will (probably) be worth the fuss just so you can have the pleasure of talking to distant lovers, pals or family; or getting hold of merchants, customers or contacts for the purpose of glorious capitalism.

Mind you, what people might say, well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish!

About The Author

Matt Jacks is a successful freelance writer providing valuable tips and advice for consumers purchasing long distance phone service, mobile phone accessories and inexpensive web hosting reseller. His numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.

This article on "How Long Distance Works" reprinted with permission.

© 2004 - Net Guides Publishing, Inc.

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