Reach Out and Market to Your Friends

Not since the MCI calling plan that required you to give the numbers of up to 10 of your closest friends and family who you wanted to get a cheaper rate to call - which then led to them being marketed by the phone company - has a telco introduced a plan more dependent on downstream marketing than AT&T's latest brilliant move. To quote Saturday Night Live, "Who are the marketing geniuses who came up with this one?" For $19.95 per month you can make unlimited long distance calls to other AT&T customers; 7 cents a minute to everyone else.

The New York Times story goes into some depth, but the salient quote in the press release is this one, which just kills me:

There's a fairly good chance that calls to your friends and relatives will be included. And if they're not already AT&T residential customers, just ask them to switch.

This is so Dilbertian that it almost hurts. Oddly that quote appears verbatim in the Times story without attributing it to the press release; either the executive is so on message that she can't speak except in marketing phrases, or the reporter snipped it and meant to attribute it.

This is an amazing deal if, for instance, you make about 6 to 7 hours of phone calls a month just to AT&T customers. But the flat rate means that if you don't make these calls every month, you lose out over a cheap per minute deal. It's like a cell service plan.

I had AT&T service until a few weeks ago under a new plan that was supposed to provide a $25 gift certificate for signing up (it never came and they didn't answer queries about where it was); and $1 per month off for using online billing. But the basic charges kept growing until we were paying about 50 cents a minute for calls on slow months.

I'd already switched our calling card to Net2Phone. Although they are known for PC-to-PC phone calls, the company has an incredibly good calling card deal. You pay a buck a month for the service and 3.9 cents per minute for long-distance made through a local access number or 7.9 cents per minute through a toll-free number. The pay phone access fee is the lowest I've seen: 45 cents the last time I checked.

Other calling cards have ridiculous fees: $1.50 to $2.00 for a pay phone surcharge and 45 cents or higher per minute on their default plans. Even if you pay AT&T an extra monthly fee, the card still offers stupidly high rates. Net2Phone as an Internet company provides full online self-service bill, refill, and call records, too. You can set the card to put more money on whenever the amount drops below a certain point.

For home long-distance, we just switched to Opex, a service recommended through a partnership with AAA of Washington. We also get a special rate. The details I don't quite have all of, but I believe we're at 4.5 cents a minute. (Why not just use Net2Phone at home? Because we've had the problem before of a calling-card company going belly up.)