When Continental Telephone Co. announced a plan to offer Prince William County customers dramatically lower rates for calls to and from Fairfax County and other parts of Northern Virginia, the county's business and government leaders were ecstatic.

This was another exciting step toward Prince William's arrival, at last, as a full-fledged member of the Washington metropolitan area, they said.

So far, most residents have had no trouble keeping their enthusiasm in check. At the first of the month, only 38 percent of Prince William's approximately 80,000 customers had responded to ballots mailed June 1 asking whether they would accept a slightly larger monthly flat charge in exchange for rate reductions of about 80 percent on Northern Virginia long-distance calls, Contel said.

A majority of customers in any given Prince William exchange area must respond to the ballots -- and a majority of those must vote in favor -- for Contel to seek approval of the new service from the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

Because Prince William is served by Contel and most of the rest of Northern Virginia is served by Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co., Prince William residents often have to pay high rates to call places that may be only a short distance away. A 10-minute phone conversation between Dale City and Crystal City, for example, costs $2.33. Under the new service, it would cost about 39 cents.

Many government and business leaders have said high long-distance rates have contributed to an image of Prince William from elsewhere in the region as a remote and exotic place. They said this has hurt the county's economic development efforts and prevented the county from earning the sophisticated reputation they say it deserves.

The deadline for returning the phone ballots has been extended indefinitely and a new round of ballots was mailed July 30.

"We feel there is a strong interest in the service among many people," said Contel spokesman T. Wade King. "The confidence level in getting a 50 percent return? We still don't know."

King said that more than 90 percent of the customers who returned ballots voted in favor of the proposed service and that many customers who have not responded probably want the service but are unaccustomed to voting on such an issue as phone service.

Also, King said, ballots in the Hoadly area interchange were incorrectly mailed, further confusing the process.