Monopolizing the Phone Lines

Some critics of HSTO claim that it is a monopoly and others worry that it permits invasions of student privacy

When Whit D. Pidot '96 makes a long distance telephone call, he uses his cellular telephone because he says the long distance rates charged by the Harvard Student Telephone Office (HSTO) are so inflated.

Though his pocket-sized phone costs $29 per month, Pidot says the savings are substantial. A 30 minute call to Andover, Mass., for instance, costs $3 under HSTO and $.35 on a cellular phone after 7 p.m., he says.

Pidot, as well as a small but vocal group of students, complain HSTO doesn't offer students savings on phone service and excludes them from special offers advertized by MCI, the University's designated carrier.

With only seven employees in the one-floor office on Ware Street, HSTO serves undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty and administrators.

HSTO is essentially a liaison for New England Telephone. It controls the wires which run from its offices to student dorms. It determines telephone rates, controls Personal Access Codes (PAC), bills students and screens repair calls for New England Telephone.


The office was created four years ago to "take advantage of the Harvard University Network," says Jack Wise, manager of HSTO. HSTO's fees for activation and long distance are substantially lower than those of New England Telephone, he says.

"We can provide better service, at a better expense than New England Telephone," Wise says.

But students complain that HSTO's reduced rates are still higher than the special long distance offers by many major long distance carriers. Wise says the University currently bills students 95 percent of MCI's standard rates.

Of the 95 percent, though, it is unclear how much the University must actually pay MCI and how much of the percentage goes towards HSTO operations. Pidot, who wrote a piece on HSTO in The Harvard Salient last year, claims Harvard pays MCI only 50 percent of their rates.

Wise said the University has signed a non-disclosure agreement with MCI prohibiting any University offical from discussing the rates Harvard pays MCI. Wise said HSTO determines how much to charge students so it can pay MCI and still recover for costs.

The HSTO service plan also prevents students from taking advantage of special long distance packages, such as MCI's "Friends and Family" deal, which gives students discounted rates for numbers they frequently call.

Wise says students can't use the special long distance offers because the University has negotiated a flat long distance rate with MCI, which gives the University a cheaper long distance rate compared to standard rates.

In response to many student inquiries over the year about MCI's discount plans, Wise says he is investigating whether HSTO can offer students long-distance packages in the future.

Wise concedes students who make a high volume of long distance calls get hit by the small differences between various carrier's rates.

"Only a fraction of a percentage of students go with New England Telephone, and most students who change make a high volume of calls," Wise says.