Public reaction to the controversial Caller ID telephone service is about evenly split between those who like it and those who want to get rid of it, according to Frank Heintz, chairman of the Public Service Commission.
"There are not many in the middle ground," Heintz told the Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee of the House of Delegates yesterday.
Caller ID allows a telephone customer, for a monthly fee, to obtain a display screen that shows the number of the person calling. The Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland has signed up more than 33,000 customers for the service, which has been available in Maryland since August 1989.
The telephone company has promoted the service as a way to thwart harassing telephone calls.
Caller ID has provoked strident protests from people who say the service is an invasion of privacy. Agencies that deal with domestic violence have been particularly critical, saying Caller ID can be used by an abusive spouse to obtain the telephone number of an estranged spouse and then harass the person.
In reaction to these protests, the Public Service Commission began an investigation of Caller ID this summer. The options open to the commission include making no changes in the service, banning it, or ordering C&P to providing services that prevent Caller ID from identifying calls from specific phones. This blocking service can be provided either for all calls from a particular telephone or selected calls.
The commission has received 900 letters -- 480 in favor of Caller ID and 420 opposed, Heintz said. At the four public hearings on the matter, about 140 people testified with "a little more in favor than opposed," he said.
But Heintz stressed that the matter would not be determined simply by public reaction, but would depend on the facts in the case. A decision is expected in late November, he said.
C&P has opposed any blocking, saying it would undermine the purpose of Caller ID.
John M. Glynn, the Maryland people's counsel, said his office did not take a position, but, in the interest of providing a complete record, he did provide evidence on selected blocking. The people's counsel represents rate-payers in cases before the commission.
Asked for his personal opinion, Glynn said he was "generally unimpressed" with C&P's argument that "per-call blocking" would seriously impair the service.
He said the controversy over Caller ID has been "one of the most peculiar and troubling issues" that he has handled since becoming people's counsel.
Glynn said one of the results of the new services has been "retaliatory phone calls" to people who are identified by Caller ID. "You have telephone wars unleashed," he said.
However, Pete White, director of government relations for C&P, said the new service has been enthusiastically embraced by many customers. "There have been life-saving success stories," he told the committee. "It is our belief that the majority of customers are benefiting from Caller ID," he said.
Customers who do not have Caller ID also benefit from the service, White said. He said he had received an abusive call and asked the caller if he had heard of Caller ID. "And that was the end of that," he said.
He also said the telephone company has tried to answer the complaints about the system by making special arrangements with organizations that shelter abused spouses. "We are continuing to reach out," he told the committee.