Hundreds of elderly and handicapped D.C. residents, many dependent on telephone service as a lifeline to friends and medical services, turned out yesterday at a Northwest Washington church to angrily protest the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co.'s request for a rate increase totaling $54.5 million.
Many who testified before the D.C. Public Service Commission (PSC), which will rule on the increase, warned that telephone service may soon become an unaffordable luxury for shut-ins and crippled residents. Others complained that for too long C&P has used the breakup of the telephone system as an excuse to gouge residential phone users and cut corners on service.
"I don't know how many more times C&P is going into court to ask for increased alimony payments," quipped Beatrice M. Campbell, who is legally blind and serves on the mayor's advisory committee on the handicapped. "We didn't ask for the divorce. I don't see why we have to pay for the alimony payments."
Alice Ford, who chairs the D.C. Commission on Aging, said that for many of the city's 103,000 elderly persons, the telephone "is an instrument essential for survival."
"First and foremost in the minds of the elderly is the rising cost of phone service," Ford said.
Ethel Weisser, a representative of the Washington-area Gray Panthers, complained that C&P is seeking massive residential rate increases while it is asking the PSC for permission to reduce the rates it charges big business and government for Centrex, so that it can become more competitive.
"If C&P wants to operate in the free marketplace, by all means let it," Weisser said. "But don't ask the people who must use this company's services to subsidize their ventures. That's the business and risk of its shareholders."
C&P's petition before the PSC to revise its rate structure and boost its revenues, largely at the expense of residential users, has been opposed by the D.C. Office of the People's Counsel and by City Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), who yesterday described the request as "outrageous."
"Not only are these figures out of line when compared with increases in inflation or for other utilities," Shackleton said, "they are particularly disturbing because telephone service has gotten worse rather than better, bills are difficult to understand and the various rate options are confusing to the average customer."
About 600 persons attended yesterday's hearing at Peoples Congregational Church, 4704 13th Street NW.
C&P officials contend that for years residential users have paid a subsidized rate for their service and that C&P is entitled to increase those rates to remain financially strong and to "meet the challenges of competition and technology."
C&P is seeking contracts to provide new Centrex telephone service to the District government, including installation of phones in the new municipal building at 14th and U streets NW and providing enhanced "911" emergency service.
"If we lose business with the District government or with certain large businesses . . . then obviously our revenues will go down and the burden will be the more apparent on the residential customer and smaller businesses," said R. Webster Chamberlin, a C&P spokesman.
The company originally filed a rate request totaling $75.8 million with the PSC in August but adjusted the figure downward to $67.8 million and then to $56.7 million. About $47.7 million of the increase would take effect this year, with the remaining $6.8 million targeted for 1986.
The new C&P rate plan for the first time would split residential phone bills into a $13.42 charge solely for hearing a dial tone -- a highly controversial measure -- and have additional charges for actual usage. The company has proposed overall higher prices and new categories for services.
As part of its overall rate request, C&P has supported the concept of a "lifeline" service aimed at providing low-cost service to the elderly, disabled and disadvantaged -- provided they can pass a "means" test.
Yesterday, C&P critics said that it would be demeaning to ask residents to submit to a review of their finances. Moreover, Shackleton said she was amazed that C&P expects the "lifeline" service to be paid from city taxes with the government also bearing the cost of advertising and running the program.
"There is absolutely no reason why the government should be asked to subsidize profits for the phone company," she said.
Mark Plotkin, a Ward 3 member of the D.C. Democratic State Committee and a longtime critic of the phone company, said yesterday that C&P is trying to boost residential phone rates so high that D.C. residents eventually will go along with an unpopular measured-rate plan that was twice rejected by the PSC. Under that plan, the cost of local calls would be measured the same way as the cost of long-distance calls.
"I think . . . [C&P] has moved from greed to cruelty," Plotkin said. "At one time the phone was like a given -- a birthright. Now they're saying only the comfortable can afford it."