DAVID GREENE, host:
Okay, so we all know about cell phone chargers, but here's a telecommunication's moment that seems to be a thing of the past: a telemarketer calling you up to cajole you into switching long distance phone companies.
Well, NPR's Jeff Brady reports on the big changes to the business of selling long-distance phone service.
JEFF BRADY: Go to the Web site for AT&T and you'll be hard-pressed to figure out the company even offers long-distance telephone service. That's a big change from just a few years ago, when Ma Bell's pitchman, Cliff Robertson, was on television practically begging for customers.
(Soundbite of TV commercial)
Mr. CLIFF ROBERTSON (Actor): People who thought that they could do better than AT&T are coming back to the real value. You can too, it's simple. Just call now and come back for free.
BRADY: According to the Federal Communications Commission, the long-distance business reached its peak in 2000. Since then revenues have been cut in half. Telecom analyst Jeff Kagan monitored the industry's decline.
Mr. JEFF KAGAN (Telecom Analyst): The $100 billion long-distance industry that we tracked through the '80s and '90s is gone.
BRADY: Kagan says the demise began in earnest in 1996. That's when Congress passed the legislation that changed the ground rules for the industry. It put regional Baby Bells in direct competition with their former parent company, AT&T, which already was fending off long-distance competitors. Within just a few years, the local phone companies won that competition. In fact, Baby Bell SBC eventually took over AT&T.
Mr. KAGAN: The competition is now between, you know, AT&T and Comcast. It's between Verizon and Comcast and Cox and Time Warner.
BRADY: Cable television companies are becoming large providers of telephone service, at the same time telephone companies have gotten into the TV business. The long-distance sales pitches are gone. Now the hot topic is bundling various products combining TV, Internet, phone and cellular service into one package. Long distance almost seems an afterthought, according to Jim Speta. He's a telecom law professor at Northwestern University.
Professor JIM SPETA (Telecom, Northwestern University): One of the big changes in the past 10 years has been the movement of something like a quarter to a third of all long-distance minutes from land-line phones to wireless phones.
BRADY: And then there's the emergence of Internet phone services like Skype, which are free if both parties use the software. For the long-distance calls still made the old fashioned way, grandma can't really complain about the cost anymore. It's just pennies a minute. Remember when Candice Bergen was on TV pitching 10-cents-a-minute?
(Soundbite of TV commercial)
Ms. CANDICE BERGEN (Actor): After all my work I'll be remembered as a dime lady. What (unintelligible) think about that?
BRADY: A decade later, 10-cents-a-minute seems exorbitant. Jim Speta says technology is part of the reason for that.
Mr. SPETA: There has been what we call the death of distance. And what that means is that to a significant extent the cost of transmitting locally is not that much different than the cost of transmitting long-distance.
BRADY: Speta says the long-distance business is still there, but most of us aren't even aware of it anymore. It's focused on transmitting data rather than just voices, and doing it much more cheaply, which is why these days even if someone did interrupt dinner to ask about switching long-distance companies, rather than feeling annoyed, it might prompt a trip down memory lane.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.
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