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What arrival of 'Baby Bell' means to phone customers

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The woman with designer sunglasses and multiple shopping bags steps between counters laden with telephones. Her perplexed look hints she's not finding what she wants in this downtown Bell Phone Center. The sales clerk approaches, flashing a confident smile. After all, when it comes to phones, this place has enough to wire a small suburb.

There are phones stashed inside pseudo-jewelry boxes ($235), molded plastic Winnie-the-Pooh phones ($149), and sleek cordless portables ($169). There's even a phone with a simulated alligator-skin faceplate ($109) for the caller who has everything.

But the woman wants to rentm a phone, and this place only sellsm them. Put simply, getting a phone isn't as easy as it used to be. She's told to go up the street to the New England Telephone Servicem Center.

Sweeping regulatory changes - embodied in Federal Communications Commission (FCC) orders that took effect Jan. 1 - are beginning to reach out and touch consumers.

These changes allowed American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) to set up an unregulated subsidiary, American Bell (affectionately known as ''Baby Bell''). This new company sells phones through 461 Bell Phone Center Stores scattered across the country, as well as through some Sears and Target stores.

What may seem especially confusing to many people is that many of the Bell Phone Center Stores and local company service centers used to all be the same thing. Baby Bell simply skimmed off a portion of those locations to start their retail business. They both even still have identical blue bell-shaped logos over their doorways.

While customers will still be able to rent phones for the forseeable future, phone manufacturers are hoping they won't want to. It will most likely become increasingly difficult to lease a phone. At the same time, heated-up competition in phone sales will probably bring prices down and add features that boggle the imagination.

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