THE way to slice dollars off your telephone bill could be at the end of your fingertips. The entry of four new competitors into fixed-line services and the emergence of scores of call-back operators has meant those wishing to phone abroad now have more choice. Hongkong Telecom retains an official monopoly on international telephone services until 2006, but an array of other firms now act as a brokers, using Telecom's international network and those of foreign operators. While prices have not crashed, they are showing signs of retreating. The first shots of a price war were fired in July, when Hongkong Telecom slashed some of its international charges. It cut 21 per cent from rates to US and 15 per cent from those to Canada. Two of its rivals then followed suit. New World Telephone cut 13 per cent on its peak rate to the US, while CTI, the largest independent international carrier in the territory, cut its rates to the US, Canada and Britain. With such volatility, choosing which company offers the best all-round package is a tough task. A selection of rates shows a wide variance between firms. There is also no real trend, as each company offers cheap rates in at least one category. Three companies offer extensive telephone services, including international calls: Telecom, New T & T and New World Telecom. Hutchison will join this group after October. In addition, there is a plethora of independent call-back operators, estimated to number between 30 and 40. The seven operators who are licensed by the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) are Worldwide 800, City Telecom, AIC Telecom, SmartNet Telecom, Sprint International, GrandTel International and Elephant Talk. The others operate without a licence, but the Government has made no move to crack down on them. Call-back operators exploit anomalies in international accounting rates by offering calls to overseas destinations at IDD rates below Telecom's. Telecom protested when these operators began to set up shop, but OFTA ruled they were not in breach of the company's monopoly on international call services. Charges for call-back services are generally cheaper than those offered by the major companies, but not significantly so. On popular routes such as to the US they can be as much as 20 per cent less than those of established operators. This was seen as the main reason Telecom chose to make its first price cuts on rates to the US. However, there are drawbacks to the services. They are clumsy to use and have suffered numerous technical glitches. Call-back operators will iron out these problems in time but, by then, established providers may be able to match them in price. The best advice for choosing among the morass is to base selection on which country you are likely to be calling the most and shop around as widely as possible. It is also worthwhile getting as much information about price of each service as possible, including connection charges, annual fees and pricing structure per call.