In a move likely to bring sweeping changes to the telephone message industry, the state Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday ordered California's telephone companies to provide low-cost blocking for customers who wish to cut off access to Dial-a-Porn and other pay telephone services.
In a related move, the PUC ruled that live-action "chat" lines, which allow callers to talk to each other or to a message service employee, violate state regulations limiting 976 dial-a-message lines to recorded information.
Together, the two rulings represent the state's most aggressive efforts so far to regulate the telephone message industry, which has grown to 4.5 million calls a month with revenues expected to top $85 million this year.
Feb. 1 Deadline
The PUC's order requires Pacific Bell--which handles the vast majority of 976 service in California--and General Telephone to implement central office blocking of all 976 calls for customers who request it by Feb. 1.
Residential customers can be charged no more than $2 to screen out dial-a-message calls from their telephones, while low-income customers on "Lifeline" rates must be offered blocking free of charge. Business customers will be charged a maximum of $5.
"This is going to make California the leader in terms of the resolution of the 976 problem. It is also going to force a major and comprehensive restructuring of the industry. The 976 industry as we know it today is dead," predicted Bob Gnaizda, a lawyer for San Francisco-based Public Advocates Inc., which has pushed for more consumer protection in the 976 industry.
A recent survey showed that as many as 1.1 million California households would opt for blocking if it were available at a $5 charge, the limit set by the state Legislature last year when it ordered some form of 976 blocking.
With the lower charge included in the PUC's order, Gnaizda predicted that up to 2 million families would seek to block 976 telephone calls.
Pacific Bell officials said they will be able to offer central office blocking to 88% of their residential customers. Blocking is not possible for the remaining 12% because they are connected to older equipment. Those customers will either be permitted to change their phone numbers to connect with more modern equipment, or to seek refunds for unauthorized 976 calls made from their phones.
"We welcome the commission's decision which allows customers to block 976 calls from their telephones. The kinds of filth carried on some of those services is absolutely repugnant to us," Pacific Bell said in a prepared statement.
"Although we are not in the censorship business, we believe our customers--especially parents--must have control over access to such services from their phones. This order gives them that control," the company said.
Pacific Bell spokesman Lou Saviano said he believes the company will be able to implement blocking for most customers who request it well in advance of the Feb. 1 deadline.
Complaints from parents about Dial-a-Porn, Dial-a-Santa and teen-age "gab" lines--all available in addition to the basic kind of recorded information and home banking services originally envisioned for 976--have soared in recent months.
Under an existing PUC regulation requiring phone companies to offer customers a one-time refund for unauthorized calls from their telephones to 976 numbers, refunds over the last year have averaged 10% of all billings for 976 calls.
The blocking issue has been a controversial one because of disputes over whether all 976 services should be blocked for customers who may object to only some of them and over who should pay for blocking.
Pacific Bell estimates it will cost $20 for each household that requests blocking. The PUC order specifies that 976 message providers must pay the remainder of the cost not picked up by the $2 charge to customers, but Saviano said there has been no decision on how to allocate costs among the message providers.
The PUC is expected to act early next year on a new proposal from Pacific Bell that would establish different telephone prefixes for various kinds of message services, allowing customers to block out one kind of service, such as Dial-a-Porn, while still receiving other kinds of information services.
The result of Wednesday's blocking order will likely be a drastic drop-off in 976 revenues, Gnaizda said, accompanied later by a restructuring of the industry to de-emphasize controversial children's marketing services and Dial-a-Porn, which currently accounts for more than 60% of the revenue generated by 976.
Telephone company officials said they are not certain how they will respond to Wednesday's PUC ruling that live action lines violate Pacific Bell's tariff, the regulatory structure that limits the company's 976 service to recorded messages and "interactive" service such as the use of touch-tone telephones for home shopping and banking services.
"Pacific Bell is pleased the commission has agreed with our long-held belief that 'live chat lines' are a violation of 976 regulations and shouldn't be allowed to continue without several crucial safeguards for consumers," the company said in a prepared statement. "Pacific's 976 service was never intended to be used for 'party lines.' "