Money: Phone firms make a beeline for the long-distance caller

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The vast majority of residential customers will benefit as a result of last week's price cuts by BT, with a three-minute daytime national call now costing 22p, falling to 8p at the weekend. International calls also become cheaper, with a 10-minute weekend call to the United States costing pounds 2.09 including VAT.

Customers on the free Friends and Family scheme will pay pounds 1.88 for the same 10-minute call to the US. And subscribers to PremierLine, which costs pounds 24 a year and provides a 15 per cent discount on call charges, will pay pounds 1.78 for the same call. However, PremierLine is aimed at customers whose quarterly bill is more than pounds 60, otherwise the subscription charge would nullify any benefits.

Rival operators Mercury, AT&T, Swiftcall and World Telecom also cut charges to maintain their claims to undercut BT. There are worthwhile discounts available from them and your BT line gives you easy access. For a quarterly subscription of pounds 5.75, Mercury's SmartCall offers savings of up to 14 per on BT's basic long-distance evening rate and reductions of up to 28 per cent during evenings and weekends. Customers using SmartCall on a BT line simply prefix all calls with a three-digit number.

SmartCall customers can also accumulate free weekend minutes based on the amount of time they use the service, together with a further automatic 5 per cent reduction on the five numbers with the biggest bills.

AT&T arrived on the residential market last year. Its Calling Service schemes, again accessible by prefixing calls with a three-number digit, are aimed at people whose quarterly bill exceeds pounds 90.

Calling Service offers a selection of plans, costing pounds 3.99 each per quarter, to various regions of the world. Someone who subscribes to CallAmerica will pay pounds 1.64 including VAT and connection for a 10-minute evening or weekend call to the US, while a similar-length evening call from London to Scotland will cost 34p, compared with BT's basic rate of 46p.

Swiftcall's international call charges look hard to beat, especially its 10p a minute tariff to the US. But subscribers must pre-pay that time with an upfront fee of pounds 25, which then entitles them to pounds 25 of Swiftcall talktime.

World Telecom claims that despite the BT cuts, its charges are still cheaper by 40 per cent for international calls and 21 per cent for national calls compared with BT's standard rate. Its scheme, WorldSaver, unlike those of its competitors, is available without subscription charges. Anyone in the UK can join and register two single-line BT phone numbers. All calls must be prefixed with a four-digit code.

Not everyone will benefit from these additional schemes, and while the international savings look good, there will be many people who have no need to call another country. Another factor to consider is how much you spend on phone charges. If your bill ranges from pounds 30 to pounds 40 a quarter and most calls are made locally, it would make sense to stick with BT.

q Contacts: World Telecom, 0800 376 6370; AT&T, 0800 143 143; BT, 150; Mercury, 0500 600 194; Swiftcall, 0800 769 0000.

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