Changes to the Public Utility Regulatory Act and the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 required local telephone companies to allow new companies to connect with their networks in order to provide competitive local phone service.
Currently over 400 competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) are certified by the PUC to provide competitive local phone service in Texas. To find out which companies may be offering local phone service in your area, look in at the beginning of your traditional telephone company's telephone directory. A list of local phone companies should be found in the front pages of the directory. Additionally, a listing of companies doing business in your area can be found on this Website under "Telephone Companies."
Shopping around for a local phone provider has gotten easier. Thanks to Senate Bill 86, customers can now expect some basic customer protections from all local telephone companies.
Alternative local phone providers are required to provide the same customer protection standards as a regulated local phone company. This means that customers signing up for service with alternative providers must be given clear and accurate information. Once you sign up and pay a deposit for service, an alternative provider must connect your service within a reasonable period. These providers must also give you notice before disconnecting your service. Alternate providers are prohibited from slamming and cramming. Any violations of these standards could result in penalties and fines or revocation of their operating certificates.
In addition, with these protections, customers can reap the benefits of competition in the local phone market without giving up their basic rights and protections. Local phone service is now available not only from traditional phone companies but also from many cable companies and companies that use voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology. Many of the local phone service providers are increasingly offering discounts on packages that include local and long distance voice services in combination with high speed internet access and television service. Information on service packages can be found on this Website under "Bundling."
Long Distance Service
There have been many changes over the years with long distance service. Before competition, consumers had only one company for all of their calling needs. Once competition began, consumers had to choose two, three, or more companies to handle all of their calling needs. As the industry has advanced, consumers can now tailor plans to fit their callings needs and preferences. For long distance service, this could be one company, more than one company, or no company at all. It's your choice. The key to making a good choice is to know what your long distance needs are before you begin shopping for service. This will help you when you are comparing the many plans and options that are available to phone customers, and it will also help you determine what questions you need to ask to get answers that help you choose a long distance plan.
Learn about how you can lower your long distance rates.
IntraLATA Toll Calls
IntraLATA calls charge the customer for calls made to neighboring towns within the LATA (Local Access Transport Area). A LATA is the geographical areas defining local telephone service. Any call within a LATA can be handled by the local telephone company, but calls between LATAs (InterLATA) must be handled by long distance carriers, even if the same local telephone company provides service in both LATAs. Long distance carriers also provide long distance service for calls that terminate outside of Texas. Unless you have chosen a long distance service carrier or Presubscribed Interexchange Carrier (PIC), these calls may be carried by your local phone company. You have the option to choose a PIC for both your intraLATA calls and your interLATA/intrastate and interstate calls.
Why does this matter?
Different companies charge different rates for intraLATA toll calls. It's possible you could be paying too much. In some parts of Texas, intraLATA or interLATA/intrastate toll calls can cost more than out-of-state toll calls. Take a close look at your bill to see how many intraLATA toll calls you make.
How can I save money?
Look at your phone bill and know exactly how much you are spending each month on intraLATA and interLATA/intrastate and interstate toll calls. Contact both your local phone service and long distance provider about their rates. Ask about metro or extended area service calling plans, which charge a flat fee for certain calling areas, or calling packages based on the number of calls, the time spent per call, the phone number or numbers being called, and other services that you often use. For example, some companies may offer a flat monthly fee for unlimited local toll calls to one phone number. There are cheap long distance carriers that offer intraLATA toll calls, sometimes at rates much lower than those offered by your local phone company. The best deal will depend on your calling pattern.
How do I change service?
To change, contact the company you want to handle your intraLATA toll calls. If you take no action, your local telephone company may continue to provide your intraLATA toll call service. If you are a new customer setting up local service, you should be given a choice of intraLATA toll providers. If not, make sure you ask.
Voice over Internet Protocol - VoIP
Voice over Internet Protocol, or "VoIP," is a type of telecommunications technology that converts analog voice signals from a phone or headset into digital data and transports the bits the same way that e-mail messages and attachments are sent. There are three types of VoIP, each one with implications that consumers should understand before signing up with a given provider.
The first type of VoIP uses the local public telephone network just like traditional phone service, but calls are converted into data and transported over broadband networks, then reconverted to analog signals on either end.
The second type of VoIP, peer-to-peer (P2P), provides a software application for your computer that does the analog-to-digital conversion and transmits conversations over the Internet rather than over the public phone network. With peer-to-peer VoIP service, you can only "call" others who also use peer-to-peer VoIP software on their computers. It's a limited service, but it's relatively inexpensive. This type of service is not meant to replace your traditional phone service but can save you a little money on what would otherwise be long distance calls to those other VoIP subscribers. Many businesses have developed internal phone systems using peer-to-peer VoIP networks that allow calling between offices located anywhere in the world, thus avoiding local and long distance calling fees.
The third type of VoIP, "hybrid VoIP," allows you to use your phone to make digital calls to anyone who has a phone, not just other subscribers to your VoIP provider. The conversations are converted into data and transported to an Internet "gateway" that routes your call to the number you're calling, whether it's a traditional phone on the public network or another VoIP subscriber's computer. Most major cable companies now offer digital phone service that is actually VoIP services. Each call is transported over the cable network as VoIP before being passed, through a gateway, on to the public switched telephone network to be completed in the same manner as a call from a regular conventional phone. This third kind of VoIP service is growing the fastest and consequently generating the most questions and concerns.
The Advantages of VoIP
The biggest advantage of VoIP service over traditional phone service is price, if you already have a broadband connection such as digital cable or DSL. Additionally, because VoIP is a largely unregulated "information service," VoIP providers currently do not have to pay connection fees to transport long distance calls or other fees that get tacked on to traditional phone service bills, making VoIP service cheaper by comparison. You do need a broadband Internet connection like digital cable or DSL. Be sure to figure this cost into your total phone service cost. Many consumers who already have a broadband connection can save by subscribing to a VoIP service.
Because VoIP is an Internet application, some providers allow you to check your voice messages directly from a computer and easily manage and share messages just like e-mail. VoIP providers offer a range of features that take advantage of this important difference between Internet calling and traditional calling services.
Certain types of VoIP can be tied to an Internet address, which can move with you anywhere. With a VoIP modem and phone adapter connected to your laptop, you can make and receive calls to and from your local phone number no matter what area code or international code you are in at the time. The VoIP provider makes sure its system works with the traditional phone network. Not all VoIP platforms allow "nomadic" calling, so check with your provider (or the ones you're considering).
VoIP and 911
Since November 2005, all VoIP providers that allow you to make calls to and from the traditional telephone network (excluding peer-to-peer VoIP software providers) must supply 911 emergency calling capabilities to their customers. Previously, some VoIP services could not convey to emergency operators who was making a 911 call and where the caller was located, two critical pieces of information for local rescue, police, and fire department personnel. Today, all "interconnected" VoIP providers must deliver all 911 calls to the local emergency call center with the caller's callback number and physical location and let their customers know the capabilities and limitations of their VoIP 911 service.
Other Differences between VoIP and Traditional Phone Service
- If your broadband Internet connection goes down, your VoIP phone may not work. Some providers offer a service that will forward incoming calls to an alternate number (such as a cell phone) in the event the VoIP connection fails.
- Conventional telephones are powered by the local phone company's network, so they keep working when you lose power. Since most VoIP services are tied to computers, they shut down when the power goes out. You can buy a backup power supply for your computer, but if your broadband service is provided by your cable company, the cable delivery system itself may be without power, leaving you without phone service during an outage. Consider the cost of a backup power system before making a decision to switch to VoIP.
- If you have a security/alarm system, contact your service provider to make sure your system will work with a VoIP system. Some VoIP providers claim their service will work with most alarm systems. Others are offering their own proprietary alarm services. A few providers clearly state that their service will not support third-party security systems.
- If you make international calls to landlines or wireless phones using VoIP, your provider may tack on fees for connecting those calls, which could drive up the service cost. Read the fine print concerning international calling rates and restrictions before signing up.
- VoIP directory services may not provide the same level of operator service with an Internet phone.
- It is not clear how regulators will deal with telemarketers who send "VoIP spam" messages to VoIP phone subscribers. Traditional phone users can sign up for "no call" lists to avoid being deluged by telemarketing calls, but there is no such list to restrict Internet spammers.
- Some VoIP users have reported problems using a FAX machine over VoIP. You may have to change your FAX settings to send and receive faxes over VoIP.
VoIP service is regulated by the Federal Government.