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In this report

Per-minute plans offer cheap long-distance

If you make fewer than 15 hours of long-distance calls per month, then a per-minute plan is probably your best bet. Two companies, ECG and Pioneer, consistently rise to the top in reviews, while Telna (formerly 3U Telecom) has the best international long-distance rates.

SaveOnPhone.com and TollChaser.com say that ECG (Est. 2.5 cents per minute) has the best deal, if you're in the 85 percent of the United States it covers. Long-distance rates with ECG Easy 2.5 cost 2.5 cents per minute state-to-state, with a monthly charge of 99 cents and a 59-cent recovery fee. The minimum per-call charge is for 18 seconds, after which calls are charged in six-second increments.

While this isn't the lowest billing increment we found (some companies bill in six-second increments with no minimum; Telna bills in one-second intervals), competing companies such as Pioneer charge by the minute. Customer service appears to be a factor in many of the reviews we read, and ECG excels in this respect as well. Editors at SaveOnPhone.com say customer-service response time was less than one minute.

Pioneer (Est. 2.7 cents per minute) is another company that is mentioned frequently in reviews of cheap long-distance services. Pioneer's per-minute rate is still cheaper than most: 2.7 cents per minute for domestic calls (excluding Hawaii and Alaska). The most reliable reviewers, however, rate ECG higher than Pioneer. These reviewers did not like the fact that Pioneer bills in 60-second increments.

If you make a 10-second call, you are billed for a full minute. Pioneer does offer a plan with six-second increments, but the charge is 3.25 cents per minute rather than 2.7 cents. Calls to any other Pioneer customer are billed at only 1.9 cents per minute. As with ECG, your location must be served by a current or former Baby Bell company, so about 15 percent of the country won't be able to access Pioneer.

Total Call International (Est. 3.9 cents per minute) is not mentioned very often among cheap long-distance calling plans, but this company has the advantage of wider availability than ECG. The company has a 3.9-cents-per-minute, 24/7 rate plan with no minimums or monthly fees, and six-second billing increments (with an 18-second minimum charged call time).

Its customer service is unusual in that support is available in six languages -- English, Spanish, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Arabic. Although it is more expensive than ECG, Total Call International is available with most carriers, and it's a good choice if you don't live in ECG's coverage area and don't make many international calls. Telna is cheaper for international calls.

International long-distance service

Telna (Est. 4.8 cents per minute) (formerly 3U Telecom) is a company that undercuts other providers when it comes to international calls and calls to Alaska and Hawaii, even though its 4.8 cents per minute domestic rate is higher than those of ECG or Pioneer. Calls to many countries (including Australia, Japan, Germany and the U.K.) cost the same as domestic calls when calling a landline.

Telna also gives you a special access number, so you can get those same rates when calling from your cell phone, as long as that phone is registered in the 48 continental states. Telna charges in one-second billing increments, an industry first, so that if your call lasts three seconds, you pay for three seconds. Telna is available to anyone; your local carrier does not have to be a current or former Baby Bell.

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