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Just about every one has heard a 976 horror story, one where gullible children see an ad urging them to call Santa Claus or the Easter bunny or one telling teenagers they can achieve instant popularity by calling a conversation party line.

The stories all have a common denominator - parents who faint when they unexpectedly receive a bill amounting to hundreds of dollars due to the 976 toll fees.Utahns can easily eliminate the potential for a personal horror story thanks to a ruling last year by the Public Service Commission. With a simple call to the local telephone service center, a customer can request blockage of 976 calling access.

The 976 controversy is national in scope, and telephone companies around the nation are taking it seriously. A variety of options are emerging to help eliminate end-of-the-month surprises.

While Utah is using an all-or-nothing approach, many states, especially in the East, are turning to pre-subscription or preauthorization options. This allows 976 access only when the caller supplies an authorization number. This effectively prevents children from randomly calling 976 numbers while still permitting authorized calls.

US WEST spokeswoman Carol Dunlap said the percentage of Utah customers requesting the 976 block-out is relatively small. At present, there are no plans in the works to offer alternatives.

Though controversy has tarnished the 976 image, some private companies see a bright future for the service if properly controlled. One such company, Prodigy Services of White Plains, N.Y., is presently offering its wares in seven U.S. cities and hopes to expand into 20 others by the end of 1989.

Prodigy Services provides personal computer owners with a communications network via the 976 telephone system. The company uses a newspaperlike approach in that users pay subscription fees, and advertising, which appears around the edges of the screen, is sold to provide additional revenue.

Prodigy spokeswoman Alison Salzman said the company will maintain a degree of editorial control, retaining the right to review all materials available to subscribers at large and responding to individual complaints received from subscribers. She said individual-to-individual messages and information will not be screened unless a complaint is received. She said such a business can be family oriented if properly managed.

Those attending the University of Utah's recently completed fourth Telecommunications Conference were told the universal availability of telephone service makes it the logical access source for this kind of business.

Conference participants were told that leadership will play a key role in whether these companies succeed and whether the 976 controversy is finally resolved. That leadership will include establishing policies to prevent the legal entanglements that have plagued the service in recent years. Such problems must be resolved before they reach the courts if the service is to remain a viable and unrestricted option for the future, they were told.