Losing its first round of appeals yesterday, Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. was again ordered to let customers block the company's controversial Caller ID service.
The Public Service Commission turned down the telephone company's request for a rehearing of last month's order that callers should be allowed to keep their telephone numbers private if they choose.
The five-member panel of state regulators told the company that it must offer the free Caller ID blocking service within 45 days and send out bill inserts telling people how to prevent their telephone numbers from appearing on special devices that can trace incoming calls.
For more than a year, C&P has offered businesses and individuals devices that display the telephone numbers of the person calling them, touting it as a way to prevent obscene or harassing telephone calls, or as a way for businesses to identify their callers.
About 35,000 people have signed up for Caller ID, which costs $6.50 a month on top of about $80 for the number-display device.
C&P spokeswoman Jeanine Smetana said yesterday that the company hasn't yet decided whether to take its appeal to the courts.
"In the meantime, the order has been issued, and we will begin work immediately to have the free per-call blocking installed in 45 days," she said, explaining that workers will have to change computer programs throughout the system.
By early February, C&P will set up a system in which anyone wishing to make a private call will have to dial or push two or three numbers, she said. A new dial tone will come on the line, and the caller will dial as usual, she explained.
At the other end of the line, anyone with one of the devices will only see a "P" for private on his display machine. Those who do not subscribe to Caller ID will receive a normal telephone call.
After C&P started aggressively marketing the service to residential customers last year, there was opposition from agencies worried that abusive spouses, for example, would use the service to find their victims.
Civil libertarians also opposed the service, arguing that it was an invasion of privacy because companies could use telephone numbers to find callers' names, addresses and credit histories.
Opponents said yesterday that they were delighted by the PSC decision but that they would have preferred a solution that didn't require those wanting privacy to dial a special code every time they make a call.
"We are elated," said Quince Hopkins, an attorney for the House of Ruth, a women's shelter that opposed Caller ID. "Of course, we would prefer no Caller ID at all," she said, "but there are benefits to it, and we understand that. We are very pleased with the decision."