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New device to lower phone bills

Forget the price wars between AT&T and MCI. MediaCom has a new piece of PC hardware that will seek out the lowest long distance rate for consumers.

Some industry visionaries have predicted that one day the PC will become the administrative centerpiece of the home. A tool from start-up MediaCom may help that prophecy come true.

The Bedford, Massachusetts-based company has a new piece of hardware that connects to a PC and, when combined with a 32-bit application, selects the lowest rate for every telephone call you make. All a user has to do is connect a phone line to the company's PhoneMiser and calls from extensions throughout the home or small office are routed through the hardware and software to find the lowest available rate.

Users can save more than 50 percent on their phone calls, and with an expected street price of under $100, PhoneMiser will quickly pay for itself, according to MediaCom. The real promise of the technology may come if and when PC makers such as Compaq Computer decide to bundle the product into their machines.

The product was showcased at last month's Demo '97 conference in Palm Springs, California, and previewed for industry press and analysts Friday. It will be released this spring and available at computer and office-supply stores nationwide.

The software application runs in the background of a PC so a user does not need to dedicate a machine to obtain the tool's benefits or actively launch the application. In a demonstration, a user played the popular computer game Quake while the software found the lowest long distance rate.

"We're taking the guesswork out of getting the best rates," said Robert Pokress, chairman, president, and CEO of MediaCom.

The PhoneMiser functions like a central-office switch of a telecommunications carrier, only it uses the processing power of a PC by plugging into a port in the back of a PC.

Analysts say this has been available to large businesses for some time, but this is the first instance where it has been available to the average user. "I think it's got enormous potential," said William Hills, a senior analyst at the Aberdeen Group. "Once people become aware of the simplicity, it's really a no-brainer."

Users will need to register with several relevant carriers in order to receive the rates, but this can be accomplished through MediaCom. All calls are charged to a user's credit card. The software collects a record of every call and the associated costs, letting users see the savings.

MediaCom will maintain a centralized database of updated long distance rates for over 400 domestic carriers. The software application dials into the database once a month to obtain the latest information on the carriers. This service will cost $4.95 after the first three months, according to the company.