The trend in meeting customer demands for extended area telephone calling is moving away from flat-rate service, said panelists at the fourth Telecommunications Conference sponsored by the Utah Public Service Commission recently.

The panelists included public service commission representatives from Ohio, Oregon and West Virginia as well as telephone company officials from Virginia, California, Texas and Georgia.The consensus was that telephone users can save money by opting for measured service options rather than insisting on flat-rate service fees if the consumer is careful in tailoring those options to fit calling needs.

Gloria Gaylord, Ohio Public Utilities Commission commissioner, said she believes alternatives to flat-rate service need to be explored whenever possible. She said measured rates put the cost of the service where it belongs, on those using the service and not the entire customer base.

"Ohio has been experiencing good things thus far with alternatives," Gaylord said. She cautioned, though, that Ohio has not had long-term experience to make a final decision.

In many areas, Utah included, there appears to be strong public opposition to mandatory measured service. Voters in Oregon have passed initiatives preventing mandatory measured service.

In these cases, telephone companies are developing optional programs that officials hope will eventually prove to the public that measured options are beneficial and less expensive.

Many companies are developing options using discounted toll fees. Officials say this option gives those wanting extended area calling a price they can afford without causing the rates for all customers to increase.

"Some traditions stand in the way of progress," said Nancy Sims, operations manager-rates, Southern Bell in Atlanta, in reference to flat-rate extended area service fees. "Public perceptions are often hard to overcome."

Sims said Southern Bell has had some success in overcoming public concerns. "Customers are starting to indicate they want options, that they don't want to pay for things they are not using or that are not beneficial to them."

Flexibility is the key, said Sims. Once customers understand they can get the service they desire at a lower cost and without affecting their basic service, support grows, she added.

Henry Geller, director of Duke University's Washington Center, said consumer education is the key element in creating change. While praising the alternatives proposed, Geller cautioned that each state would have to tailor the options to meet local needs.

Geller said the proposed changes will not only create cost equity among users but will also aid in modernizing the nation's telephone network.