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Survey to Examine ACUS Phone Service

By Dan McGuire
News Editor

Information Systems will re-examine MIT's long distance service by surveying students next week in preparation for phone contract re-negotiations, scheduled to take place this summer.

The Graduate Student Council began campaigning last year to have the rates charged by the AT&T College and University System significantly reduced. The GSC found that standard long distance rates charged by ACUS were higher than residential rates, and that international rates were significantly more expensive.

"The objective is to get long distance rates for campus residents that are competitive with those available to residential customers in Cambridge," said Geoffrey J. Coram G, president-elect of the GSC.

Information Systems is "trying to understand what the different groups of students are and what their needs are," said Dennis Baron, the director of Voice, Data, and Image Networking at IS. "The services that ACUS offers are attractive to some aggregate of students."

Part of the issue is that the plans have different advantages and drawbacks, Baron said. IS needs to strike a balance between peak and off-peak charges, and domestic and international calling rates.

"One of our concerns is that we don't want to make it better only for international graduate students who only call international. [We must also consider the needs of] undergrad students who only call domestic," Baron said.

Survey to be released next week

These concerns will hopefully be answered in part by the new survey. "We're hoping to get the survey finalized by Friday and printed over the weekend," said Director of Support Planning Joanne Costello. "We're going to try to hit approximately 10 percent" of the population in each dormitory."

The survey will be more personal than most, with IS actually giving the surveys to the students instead of leaving it in mailboxes.

"They can do that by going through [the dormitories and] randomly knocking on doors" or talking to people in the lounges, she said. "It's only one side of one sheet of paper, so we hope that it won't be too much trouble."

What's on that one side, however, will help IS determine the needs of the students. "The survey covers calling patterns, billing options" and other use issues, Baron said. The survey is also designed to figure out what additional services students would like, such as the extent of customer service.

"Only about 50 percent of the students on campus have an ACUS account," Coram said. "What are the rest of the students doing? Do they have a calling card? Do they just not call long distance? Do they use their parent's calling card? Maybe we don't have to worry about domestic rates at all."

Billing practices would also be probed. "AT&T charges a [high] flat rate if you're late paying your bill," said Director of IT Service Roger A. Roach MA '67. "If only one or two students are getting caught, it's not a big problem."

However, if lots of students are being penalized, then the issue might need to be examined, Roach said.

"If we're lucky enough to get the survey done next week, I'd like to get a core group of people together in May to determine what our first steps should be," Costello said. The goal is "to have an idea of what students want before entering a round of negotiations with the vendors."

The next step will be having IS taking the results of the survey to various long distance companies, Coram said. "We hope to stay involved with the contract selection" process.

Negotiations begin this summer

Negotiations with phone companies are slated to begin this summer, and students' calling rates will not be the only topic on the plate.

"The thing is that most of the contracts are linked together. For instance, the ACUS contract is connected to the contract that administrators use for international calls," Baron said.

Despite the links, MIT will also likely talk to other long-distance carriers, along with AT&T. "We've had a number of talks with AT&T and they've talked about a number of plans that they would like to put on the table," Roach said. "We certainly will look at other vendors." However, those vendors would have to work within the framework of MIT's 5ESS telephone system, he said.

"The long distance service market is very competitive," Baron said. However, "the services that ACUS provides haven't been that competitively driven. Of the universities that I've talked to, I haven't heard of anybody who's totally thrilled with the way that they do it. There isn't anybody who says I have the right solution,'" he said.