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Control first, safety second, Caller ID has matured at 10

Ten years ago, it was just a little box that could take some of the mystery out of who was on the other end of the line before picking up the receiver.

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A decade later, caller ID is as basic a phone accessory as the remote is to the television. In April 1987, the collaborative effort between New Jersey Bell, now Bell Atlantic, and Colonial Data, now InteliData Technologies Corp., resulted in the sale of the first caller ID unit at a Sears store in Jersey City, N.J.

Bellcore Labs established the technological standards. New Jersey Bell was the first to provide the service and the unit-manufactured by Colonial and branded by AT&T-to the consumer, said Lisa Kelly, a Bell Atlantic product manager.

By purchasing a unit that is attached to the phone and paying a monthly service fee to the local exchange carrier, customers can see the caller's name and number, as well as the date and time the call was received. More than 15 million households nationwide use caller ID.

The service that takes most of the guesswork out of incoming calls did not have a very clear idea of what it wanted to be when it grew up, Kelly said. "Initially we started marketing it as a way to address harassing phone calls," she said.

People were feeling besieged by telemarketers, stalkers and obscene callers, said a U.S. Department of Justice spokesman, though no statistics were available. "The answering machine helped-you didn't have to answer the phone until you recognized the voice," he said. "Still, obscene callers won't leave a recording. They want personal contact.

And without the ability to trace such calls, police departments and carriers could offer little advice to customers other than to change their number, the spokesman said.

That was the wrong marketing tactic to take in the beginning, said Chris Landes, an analyst with TeleChoice Inc.

"Yes, security is a valuable component of caller ID, but that's not what you want to lead with to ensure mass market adoption. Most people aren't victims of stalking or harassing," he said.

"There's no reason to play on people's fears," Kelly said. Now, Bell Atlantic and the other carriers sell caller ID as a tailored call management system for the home, she said. For example, seniors don't like to take calls from people they don't know, particularly telemarketers. "Their circle of friends and family is usually pretty small, so they can screen calls," Kelly said.

Teens, in contrast, spend a lot of time on the phone. "They use caller ID more like a rolodex," Kelly said. "They scroll down to see who has called. They may or may not choose to return those calls, but they want to know who called.

Some caller ID units can save hundreds of numbers in a personal directory. But like hackers compelled to break computer codes, telemarketers and others were bound to find a way to block caller ID, which can be done now in most states by simply dialing a prefix before the phone number.

"There's this tug of war over privacy going on," said Landes. "For the moment, though, unblocked calls outnumber blocked calls.'

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Caller ID, InteliData gave away phones to the first 25 people who turned in an original caller ID unit to Sears.

Tossing the dime overseas Sprint is offering a new plan that will allow customers to call the United Kingdom and Canada during the weekend for the same dime-a-minute fee they now pay to call within the U.S. The Sprint Sense International calling plan is being expanded from its trial a year ago.

Wired for safety AT&T Wireless Services will award $500,000 in grants to some schools in Pennsylvania and Ohio to outfit school buses with mobile phones for calling parents, school administrators and emergency numbers. The company spent $400,000 on equipment and training last year.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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