Pacific Bell began notifying customers throughout California on Wednesday that they can now block their telephones from accessing many pay-per-call 976 lines, including sexually explicit "dial-a-porn" services.
But in Orange County, 14,000 residents of Balboa and Corona del Mar will have to change their phone numbers to use the option, and most of them will have to wait until later this year to do that, a Pacific Bell spokesman said.
Most people ordering a block on the 976 line will be charged a one-time fee of $2 by Pacific Bell, which said about 7 million residential phones in the state can be blocked.
The service charge will not apply to about 1 million low-income customers statewide.
Blocking will work only on 976 lines originating within Pacific Bell service areas in California. Out-of-state lines and lines originating in areas served by other telephone companies cannot be shut off, Pacific Bell spokesman Craig MacDonald said.
In addition to mailing letters to customers statewide, the company also will use newspaper and radio advertisements to inform people of the 976 blocking service.
The action is the result of a Dec. 9 order by the state Public Utilities Commission, which, along with Pacific Bell and many consumer groups, has long sought a means to restrict children's access to sexually explicit messages on 976 lines, which were inaugurated in 1983.
Pacific Bell's position, MacDonald said, is that "we do not want to do business with pornographers, but as a regulated utility we must transport all messages without censoring."
While most of the 976 numbers--which cost between 20 cents and $2 a call--supply information such as ski conditions and stock updates, controversy has long surrounded the adult material offered on about 40% of the lines. The blocking service will bar access to all 976 lines, not just those providing "adult" messages.
Parents have complained to the Federal Communications Commission about staggering telephone bills run up by their children calling those numbers, and the issue received national attention in 1983 when a New York recording service run by adult-oriented High Society magazine and Car-Bon Publishers chalked up $10,000 in daily revenue from thousands of callers.
The $45 million billed by Pacific Bell for adult programs between July, 1986, and June, 1987, constituted 60% of the total revenue for 976 calls, with $27 million going to Pacific Bell, MacDonald said. Current law requires the telephone company to bill customers for the calls.
Pacific Bell collects from 19 cents to 70 cents per call.
In a random sampling of Orange County residents Wednesday, none of those reached expressed any interest in installing the 976 blocks on their lines.
But many, like Henrietta Barnes of Balboa, said that they would order the service if they had young children and that the $2 fee would be "well worth it."
Two bills now making their way through the Legislature would help the phone company block children's access to adult material without depriving customers of the informational 976 lines.
State Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D--Los Angeles) has introduced a bill that would establish separate phone prefixes for the adult message lines, which are legal and have been offered by dozens of firms nationwide.
And state Sen. Newton R. Russell (R--Glendale) introduced a bill that would allow Pacific Bell to refuse to bill customers for 976 calls.
"The vendors (then) would have to use billing methods not readily available to children, such as credit cards and personal identification numbers," MacDonald said.
Because of telephone equipment differences in parts of the state, about 14% of Pacific Bell's customers will be notified this month that they cannot order blocking at this time. They will be allowed, however, to have charges for unauthorized 976 calls removed from their phone bills up to three times.
Customers who can't get blocking are those served by older equipment. That includes about 10,000 Orange County residents with 673 and 675 prefixes, mainly in Balboa, who must wait until new switching equipment and a new prefix is available later this year.
An additional 4,000 residents with 640 and 644 prefixes--mainly in Corona del Mar--will be able to switch now to one of the 15 other prefixes in the area to get the blocking.