The California Public Utilities Commission gave final approval Wednesday to a Pacific Bell plan that will let customers block calls from their phones to “dial-a-porn” numbers without also blocking calls to obtain lottery results, prayers, stock quotations or horoscopes.
Pacific Bell’s plan affects information and entertainment services that callers now reach by dialing a number beginning with the prefix 976.
Under the new system, customers seeking information services will dial 10-digit numbers. These will begin with a new area code, 900, followed by one of three new prefixes designating the kind of information service, then four more digits to reach it. For example:
- A call to 900-303-XXXX would be a dial-a-porn service--one offering messages deemed “harmful” to children as defined by the California Penal Code. Those services will be available only to adult customers who subscribe in advance.
- Numbers starting with 900-505 will be for so-called chat-line services or “live” group conversations on a variety of topics.
- Numbers starting with 900-844 will be for other recorded information and entertainment services.
Residential customers can ask the phone company to block any or all of these 900-service prefixes without charge. Businesses will be charged $1 if they act before a deadline to be announced and $15 afterward.
Customers who call any of the services--whether a joke, a prayer, travel information, stock quotations or a steamy monologue--are billed a fee set by the service provider. The cost must be announced at the beginning of the message, and there is no charge if callers immediately hang up. Fees will be included in Pacific Bell’s monthly phone bills--except for dial-a-porn services, which will be billed directly by the vendors offering them.
“Our goal is to disconnect dial-a-porn,” Pacific Bell spokesman Jim Herold said. “But until we have legal authority to do that, we’ve designed our 900 service to solve the problems some consumers have had with 976.”
Constitutional protections of free speech have so far thwarted phone-company efforts to disconnect any information service, but regulators stepped in after loud protests from customers and consumer advocates over telephone bills swollen by children or employees making unauthorized calls to 976 numbers. The charges ranged from 50 cents a call to several dollars.
The PUC gave preliminary approval to the selective blocking plan on Feb. 24 but ordered a number of modifications adopted Wednesday.
The selective-blocking system will apply initially only to Pacific Bell’s local phone customers, but will likely be the forerunner of similar systems for the state’s other local phone companies, including GTE California and Continental Telecommunications. These now offer only outright blocking of 976 information services, but at no charge to the customer.
The commission also approved a contract under which Pacific Bell will bill long-distance customers of MCI within its service areas, resulting in MCI users getting just one bill for both local and long-distance services.