A recent administrative goof by C&P Telephone Co. in planning a service change in Laurel suggests that subscribers aren't the only ones having trouble sorting out the pieces in the telephone service and equipment puzzle.

About 500 subscribers in part of the Laurel service area received letters from the company last month advising them that they would be charged $30 each for work required to convert equipment in an old Laurel office to electronic switching service.

Even though the area has been served by a rotary line, several customers in the service area have been using touchtone phones. With the current rotary system in use, the telephone company is unable to distinguish between calls made from touchtone and rotary phones. With newer technology in place, however, switching equipment responds more quickly to touchtone dialing, processes calls faster and offers customers more service options than they would have with rotary dial phones.

C&P informed the 500 customers in late October that the company had set Nov. 15 as the deadline for payment of the conversion charge. But the storm of protest that followed forced C&P to reassess the true cost of the conversion and to rescind the letter.

The reevaluation means that subscribers in Laurel who plan to continue using touchtone telephones will be charged an additional $1.25 each month when the new switching service becomes available. Under existing rules and regulations of the Maryland Public Service Commission, C&P is authorized to charge for a conversion from one type of service to another, a telephone company spokesman explained. Thus, C&P is authorized to charge the additional $1.25 a month. Owners of rotary phones may continue to use them after the new touchtone service becomes operational but they won't be required to pay the additional monthly fee.

In any event, nobody will be required to pay a $30 service charge initially because the conversion is a company-initiated project -- not a change that is being made at the request of customers.

How C&P officials failed to make a distinction between the two kinds of service and the charges for each is puzzling. An irate customer in the Laurel area considers it "outrageous" that the company would make such a mistake. A C&P spokesman would only characterize the gaffe as an "oversight." Confusion, perhaps, is a more appropriate term for what happened at C&P and customer reaction to its administrative blunder.

Even though C&P is in the process of correcting the Laurel caper, confusion among customers there and elsewhere is likely to be a long-term problem so long as consumer education continues in its present state. Not only is there a gap in consumer education covering new telephone technology, but consumers seem less knowledgeable when it comes to selecting phones and service than they are about buying automobiles. The Laurel case is a prime example of the confusion that can result when consumers are faced with making a choice between telephone services and instruments they don't understand.

C&P says the 500 customers affected by the conversion can not use a touchtone telephone unless they subscribe to touchtone service. If they keep their rotary dial phones and decide later to subscribe to touchtone service, they will be required to pay $30 for the changeover. The confusion grew worse when some customers discovered that their "touchtone" phones which they bought from retail stores aren't really touchtone, after all.

Somehow, the consumer-education and customer-relations apparatus broke down along the way. An exasperated Laurel woman is a case in point:

"My daughter has a $70 phone. I am going to have to buy her another phone. This is outrageous. Can you imagine the electric company saying, 'We are putting in new equipment and you won't be able to use your refrigerator'? You can't tell people who bought equipment in good faith that you are going to cut off the equipment and make it inoperable. I just presumed the telephone is a telephone and it works. How would I know? How would anybody know?"

That is a question which needs to be answered more fully by C&P. It is, at the same time, a question which ought to be addressed more candidly by the scores of retailers who sell telephone instruments to unsuspecting consumers. In the final analysis, however, it is an issue deserving more careful study by consumer protection agencies.