Now that Ma Bell has some competition, does it pay to shop around?

There was once a time when Bell not only had the only phone company in town, but also owned all of the telephones. Not so anymore, thanks largely to the tenacity of Dallas’ Carter-fone Communications Corporation, which bucked the system in the late Sixties, persuading the courts that an AT&T monopoly on equipment was not essential to good service. But the victory was not total. Bell retained the right to require “protective couplers,” ostensibly to maintain the integrity of its system, at a cost of $7 per month – which, if used, would have effectively squelched competitive efforts. But the protective coupler “safeguard” was afforded the same degree of respect as Prohibition in the Twenties: Lots of people ignored it. Years went by and thousands of pieces of private equipment were connected to the systems of the big companies without protective couplers. And lo, the Bell System did not melt. There were no electrocutions. No one became sterile. Finally, the FCC ruled that the electronic couplers were indeed unnecessary, a decision challenged in the courts but affirmed in October, 1977.

Home telephones are now for sale all over Dallas. The Telephone Store, 3068 Forest Lane, is devoted exclusively to the sale of telephones and related communications equipment. Many department stores, electronics chains and discount stores also sell phones. But before you run out and stock up, consider the pros and cons.

First, the bad news: repairs. As long as you rely on Bell-owned phone equipment, most of the effort involved in making phone repairs is theirs, although the cost falls on you. But if you own your own phone, repair becomes wholly your problem. It may not be a big burden, depending on a number of variables, but remember that it will almost certainly entail more than a trip to the neighbor’s to phone the repairman.

Most home equipment carries a one-year warranty on parts and labor. But the cost of repairs seems less significant over the long run than where the inconvenience falls. In many cases, it will be on you.

The only retailer in town with an in-house repair capability is The Telephone Store, and except in rare instances, its repairmen don’t make house calls. If you buy your phone from one of the other local retailers, you will likely be advised to send it back to the factory for repairs, a worse inconvenience and delay.

If we all still used the sturdy old box-style dial phones, repairs probably wouldn’t seem like such a big deal. But the newer push button and Trimline-style phones, not to mention many decorator models, are lighter in weight and less durable. “It will probably be three to five years be-fore problems start showing up on the push button phones,” advises one local repairman. “But when dirt and dust begin to accumulate inside, they mess up the contacts.” Private phone buyers are also running into problems with electrical current, particularly on the General Telephone system, which serves Irving, Garland, Carrollton, Piano and Lewis-ville. The level of current is not sufficient to activate the ringing mechanism of all makes of phones.

There is no reason to expect that the phones made by G.T.E., Litton, I.T.T. and the others are of lesser quality than the equipment made for Bell by Western Electric. The point is that if performance statistics turn out to be discouraging, it will be worse news for the consumer who owns his own phone than for the one who relies on Bell.

This situation is bound to change. The big phone manufacturers are providing daily on-the-job training to thousands in the art of phone repair.’ If consumer phone ownership mushrooms, as some expect it to, the market demand is certain to inspire a like proportion of repairmen to set up shop, maybe even make housecalls. But they are not out there yet.

There are compromises to be made, of course. Multi-phone families might consider retaining one Bell phone as a backup, for example, in case their flashy new Aristocrat NP800 goes on the fritz. Bell’s own Design Line store in NorthPark offers another compromise: For fees comparable to the prices of other makes, Bell offers a line of decorator phones you can just take home and plug in, with no added cost to your monthly bill. Transactions at the Bell store are somewhere in a twilight zone between sales and rentals, however – you buy the decorator shell outright but Bell retains technical ownership of the mechanical insides, and with it, gives you the same lifetime service contract you have with all standard Bell equipment. If this sounds like a peculiar arrangement, remember that Bell owns the phone you have now, and that the reason for that is the company’s need to show a substantial investment in equipment on its depreciation schedules, which are crucial in setting phone rates. Bell is only interested in technical ownership.

Now for the good news. The main incentive for owning your own phone is the prospect of paying less for your phone service – sometimes a lot less. The choice is essentially one of renting a phone from the Bell System for a monthly fee (a hidden part of your monthly service charge), which over the long run will cost you a great deal more than the phone is worth. Or you can buy comparable phone equipment outright from an alternative supplier, and recoup the purchase price through a reduction in your monthly Bell service charge.

Making cost comparisons between using Bell-owned and consumer-owned phones is fraught with difficulties, because of the variety of available equipment and Bell’s absurdly complex pricing system. Here are a few examples of how much you can save, however.

Say you have two Bell standard dial phones, and you elect to replace one with a Touch-Tone Trimline. If you buy one at the Telephone Store, it will cost you $79.95; Bell will subsequently reduce your monthly service charge by $.65. If, on the other hand, you secure your new Trimline from Bell, it will cost you $ 10 up front and $3.40 extra per month. In this case, the savings afforded by the first path are such that your non-Bell Trimlme will have paid for itself in less than 18 months; thereafter, you’ll save a cool $48.60 a year in monthly service charges, assuming the current Bell rate schedule. That kind of savings may be enough to tempt even those who are most pessimistic about mechanical breakdowns. And you’ll still have the Bell phone to fall back on if you have to pack yours off to the shop.

Say, however, that you now have a single Bell standard dial phone, and choose to replace it with a similar model of non-Bell origin. The Telephone Store will charge you $29.95, and Bell will subsequently reduce your service charge by $.65 a month. This time you won’t break even on your purchase for nearly four years, and your annual savings thereafter will be a mere $7.80 – not a very good deal, especially if it entails any added inconvenience in repairs for you.

Since savings involved in consumer phone ownership range from impressive to negligible, it’s a good idea to work out cost comparisons before you decide to buy. If you call the Southwestern Bell business office, they will send you a Residential Catalog, which sets forth all of the various Bell charges. Use it to calculate the break-even point and subsequent annual savings that apply to your situation.

Another important point to consider in your phone shopping is the type of connector with which a phone is equipped. Most have either modular or four-prong plugs, which correspond to home jacks. If you buy a phone with the same type of connector that’s in your house, just take it home and plug it in. If not, add $5 for a converter. And if your house has no jacks, add a $15 service charge for Bell, plus $4 for each jack installed.

If you decide to buy your own phone,we recommend The Telephone Store,which has a broad selection of standardand decorator phones, in addition to thedistinct advantage of in-house repair service. Sanger Harris also has a large selection, including a delightful green andyellow children’s phone with a dial largerthan a grapefruit, called the Kid Bobo,and an upright two-piece phone, dubbedthe Bonnie and Clyde; they even haveimitation wood wall phones. SangerHarris’ prices appear to be a little higherthan The Telephone Store’s, althoughprices lower still on basic equipment canbe found at Radio Shack, Sears and Target. Private phones cost anywhere from$24.95 for a standard dial to $400 for aFrench onyx decorator model.


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