TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: WUTCO and Telco Past Relationships

WUTCO and Telco Past Relationships

Patrick Townson (
Tue, 7 Feb 2006 16:08:09 -0600

In discussing Western Union Public Offices in a previous message, I

>> Western Union had some kind of arrangment with the telephone company
>> in most towns, the public office phone number was always (exchange)-4321.

Lisa Hancock noted in reply:

> Early on the companies were jointly owned. Ever since they had a
> friendly arrangement. You could dial Operator and ask for Western
> Union and you'd be connected to them. You could charge your telegram
> to your home phone number and it would appear on your long distance
> bill.

Actually, the way this worked was:

If calling from your own telephone (presumably a private line) you
either asked the operator for '4321' or in the event you were using
a dial type phone you dialed (the EXChange)-4321.

The WUTCO clerk asked for your number, and applied the charges to your
phone bill (actually the portion of your bill known as 'Other Charges
and Credits'); the charges were identified as 'Western Union Telegraph
Company' and the appropriate WUTCO ticket or serial number. WUTCO
submitted the charges to telco, via Separations and Settlements, then
in turn it was put on your bill.

If calling from a _coin operated phone_ one was to (dial the operator
or otherwise ask) the operator for 'Western Union'. If you dialed it
direct and expected to be billed direct, you were to go through the
'4321' direction. Then, like now, going direct (via 4321) could not
raise the operator as needed for money collection. Asking for 'Western
Union' (by dialing the operator to start with) allowed flashing the hook
switch to bring the operator back on the line as needed. I think the
call generally terminated on the same incoming line(s) at WUTCO in
any event. From a purely manual exchange, I do not suppose it mattered
either way.

But if you were using a coin phone, then _your_ operator had to tell
the Western Union operator 'COIN SERVICE! Flash me when ready for
coin collection!', then she left the line, and you chatted with the
Western Union clerk. Once the message was prepared and ready for
sending, the clerk would say 'Will you now please flash for your
operator to come back on the line?' and you would flash once or
twice. _Your_ operator would come on the line, the Western Union
operator would instruct her, 'collect 75 cents (or however much
money was required)'. You would fish for the change, and deposit
it in the coin box. When _your_ operator notified WUTCO the money
was in the box, WUTCO would respond, "thank you, I am (ticket serial
number); you are?" your operator would reply "I am (ticket serial
number)at (date/time) on (coin telephone number)". WUTCO would copy
this information on their ticket in place of your signature and
money payment. That paper, went in to telco separations/settlements
the same as the 'billed direct' paper (for calls via 4321).

Lisa Hancock continued:

> When MCI came along, it demanded the same discounts that WU got. AT&T
> wasn't about to give MCI a break and was forced to raise the WU rates
> steeply. This was the final knife that killed off WU.

Not only that, but the entire concept of '900' service (that is to
say, services given over the phone and billed to your phone bill [i.e.
sex phone, horoscope, etc]) had its start through that precedent
originally set by Western Union. AT&T was originally not going to get
all caught up in billing for sex, etc on the phone. The original
vendors of same, MCI and Integratel (anyone remember that bunch of
snakes?) knew that selling sex over the phone to a very dubious bunch
of transient users would amount to collection rates via direct billing
of almost zero. Invoices showing up in the mail would generally find
their way to the closest trash can; MCI and Integratel both knew that;
there would have to be a system of billing that the users would
respect, or at the very least, be afraid to cross or ignore, presto,
the phone bill. (This was the 1973-75 era). People will not just throw
their phone bill in the trash, now will they? They approached AT&T
and asked for the same arrangements 'as Western Union'. AT&T said no
way, they would not get involved, and anyway, in those days, MCI was
a nasty competitor to AT&T which was sort of inclined to say 'let
there be a plague on both their houses' and stay out of it.

MCI told AT&T if that was their decision, then they were fixing to
get themselves sued. (Remember, this was several years before divestiture
however AT&T was quite familiar with getting sued by MCI and they
suspected MCI would use the Western Union precedent to sue them and
win successfully) so they agreed to use the 'newly created' 900 mass-
calling system as a way to administer it. MCI and Integratel did
agree to pay an 'administrative fee' to AT&T, just as WUTCO did, so it
got installed, even though by that point WUTCO was in the process of
getting out of telco direct billing.

AT&T, which for several generations had admonished their customers to
'never use profanity on the telephone; for one, it is an embarassment
to our operators and for two, it is against FCC regulations' suddenly
decided to bite the bullet and get into the sex business themselves
for a few years (anyone remember those AT&T 'reach out' advertisements
for a couple years in the 1970's and early 1980's ran in various gay
newspapers and magazines: with an obvious S & M motif AT&T would tell
us 'Reach Out and Meet a New Master/Slave/Friend/Lover/Whatever'. Just
dial this number: (some international point, but the number was parsed
in an odd way so as to decieve the users) and then we were cheerfully
told, "no service charges for calling this 'bridge'; just pay toll!"
as if that was supposed to be some bargain, and a little caraciture
of 'Ma Bell' up in the corner of the ad telling us that toll would
usually be 50-75 cents per minute.


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