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Dial 'M' for Money: Callers Use Rotary Phones to Avoid Fees

Remember the click-click-click of that old rotary phone? In our Pentium-paced age, these relics may seem outdated. Yet 30 million American households, nearly 1 in 3, still use them.

Since the advent of the touch-tone phone in 1963, Americans have steadily switched over. But the rotary can still play a role. It can be used with a computer modem; and the rotary service can send or receive faxes by switching the fax machine to pulse signal.

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There is one major weakness: Try calling any of the many businesses with answering systems that require callers to punch in numbers. In those cases, rotary callers have to wait for an operator.

For many of the rotary faithful, their loyalty is pure economics. They want to avoid the monthly fee that's sometimes tacked on to touch-tone customers' bills. This charge is usually about $1 and often goes unnoticed.

But those who do see it often attack its raison d'tre. One NYNEX customer, Dorothy Nichols of Wayland, Mass., says: "It sounds like an intentional injustice."

The fee, which is set by state regulators and the baby bells, does not apply in all areas. For instance, in USWest's 14-state service area, there is a charge only in Minnesota. And in NYNEX's six-state region, the fee is levied only in Massachusetts. "Why would they charge in Massachusetts unless they were just trying to make money?" says Ms. Nichols.

Although providing touch-tone service is costing companies less and less, they still rely on revenues generated from the fee. NYNEX, for instance, gets $38 million annually from the charges. And it says dropping them may increase the basic monthly fee for all state residents.

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