SAN FRANCISCO — The lady on the line always knows what time it is, and every year she lets 470 million Californians know, too. Free of charge. Just because they called.
But the time announcement could become another headstone in the freebie graveyard, buried alongside free directory assistance calls and free road maps and air at gasoline stations.
If Pacific Bell prevails, its 8.2 million customers will pay 20 cents every time they want to set their clocks after a power failure or make sure their watches are running correctly.
The plan would generate an estimated $31.4 million a year for the phone company, instead of costing it $9 million a year, Pacific Bell spokesman Roger Orr said.
"In a recent customer survey, we found that more than one-third of our customers never call time," he said. "So this would allow those who use it to pay for it."
The idea, he said, is to keep basic telephone costs down, and the state Public Utilities Commission, which regulates such things, seems inclined to go along, said James McCraney, PUC telecommunications specialist.
A major consumer group, TURN--Toward Utility Rate Normalization--said it will tolerate the plan, at least on a short-term basis.
"It's kind of a funny thing for us, because we generally oppose splitting pieces off of basic service," TURN staff counsel Jon Elliott said. "But in this case, we're willing to stand aside in the interest of trading the revenue to keep phone rates down, and see how it goes after the first year. We're willing to hold our nose on this."
The charge would break a 40-year tradition that began after a couple of Bell companies approached Atlanta entrepreneur John Franklin, the man responsible at the time for the big roadside clocks on billboards advertising Tick Tock ginger ale.
"They had come to Franklin with a brainstorm to see if he could develop (the hardware for a time announcement)," said Jim Fuller, vice president of marketing for Franklin's company, Audichron.
The Bell system saw free time as a call-saving feature, a number customers could call without bothering the operator. Back then, virtually all phone companies paid for it themselves, Fuller said.
But about a decade later, he said, many began to look at it as a revenue opportunity, and they worked with Audichron to develop the sponsored announcement that is popular in the East. The cost was generally underwritten by a bank or department store, Fuller said.
California's time announcement has always been a public service. But Orr said that under the AT&T divestiture agreement, former Bell companies are prohibited from offering the service themselves and must find an alternate provider. Pacific Bell's plan would turn it over to an independent contractor selected through competitive bids.
McCraney, however, disagreed with Pacific's interpretation of the divestiture agreement, saying, "To us, furnishing the time of day is an ordinary thing that they won't be prevented from offering."
Opposition has come from other corners, and the PUC has announced its intention to hold hearings on the matter. No date has been set.
"A lot of people are complaining about the idea," McCraney said. "A lot of people think it's a service that's always been part of your regular service, so why shouldn't it be kept as part of that service?"
Pacific Bell surveys show that residential customers make 80% of the calls to the time number, an average of 4.3 each month. Of those, 53% were made after a power outage and 44% to set a clock or watch. The other 3% might simply have wanted to hear another human voice, the survey surmised.