TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Re: They Know Who We're Calling

Re: They Know Who We're Calling
16 May 2006 08:45:17 -0700

> [TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Way back in the 1960's when Electronic
> Switching Systems (ESS) were first being developed, telco's major
> complaint was that the telephone network had essentially gotten out of
> control; among other things, anyone who knew how the 'system' worked
> (and more people were find out every day about the old-style 'frames'
> and other apparatus; how ancient and unreliable it was becoming; and
> the various limitations of the 'system' where people who were less
> than honest were concerned, or people who were malevolent in their
> intentions, and telco finally had enough of it and said the entire
> system had to be rebuilt from the ground up.

My understanding of ESS history is a bit different. The Bell System,
since it started, was constantly looking for more efficient ways to
handle traffic. This lowered the cost of telephone service which
generated more business allowing it to take advantage of economies of
scale. This all created a positive cycle -- more business led to more
efficiency and lower costs which led to more business.

In the late 1930s the crossbar switch, a powerful "thinking" switch,
was perfected and placed into service. During the war a long distance
version was placed into service and after the war an advanced model
was developed. But the Bell System recognized early on that it wasn't
enough. Crossbar was electro-mechanical which required costly
maintenance and limited switching speed. Changes meant hand rewiring.
Telephone usage was still growing strong. Efforts began early on to
replace relays with electronics.

The problems you speak of -- external abuse of the toll network,
unreliable frames -- came well after ESS prototype designs were being
tested. That is, ESS was fully committed and in production by the
late 1960s. Indeed, according to one writer, ESS actually caused some
of the 1970s service problems since it supposedly _completely_ crashed
when hit with massive call volume (don't know if that's true) instead
of just slow dial tone.

> Now, what telco said to the public was there would now be all these
> new, modern conveniences such as 'call waiting', 'three way calling'
> and such, to smooth over their _real_ intention, which was to get a
> phone system which was totally under their thumbs for once.

Actually, Bell System exhibits of the 1960s did proclaim the speed,
capacity, efficiency, and control of ESS. Computer technology and
logic control were alien concepts to the majority of the population
back then so it wasn't something the public would readilly understand.
I would not describe it as "smooth over their real intention". Keep
in mind the management of the Bell System in those years, especially
before deregulation and breakup, was technically oriented and very
happy to show off technical advances. Bell had travelling and
permanent demonstration exhibits all over the place.

Let's face it, the typical phone user could care less what was on the
other end of their phone, be it a hamster wheel or 'space age'
electronics. Did they get a dial tone and reach their desired party?
was all that mattered.

> What telco did _not_ tell you was that no longer, to 'trace a call'
> did an operator have to call a tech to go back in the frames and
> spend 30-45 minutes looking around ...

Actually, back in the late 1960s the country experienced a nasty fad of
prank calls that the Bell System could not handle for the reasons you
describe. That was no secret.

> And ditto when the feds wanted something done; it was a real pain in
> telco's backside to have to run those jumpers around all over in the
> frames area.

I've been in exchanges and saw such jumpers -- they did not seem to be
that big of a deal. Such testing equipment (dial record keepers and
other monitors) were developed along with panel switching early on for
maintenance and service quality testing. If the feds had a court order
the phone company complied with whatever was needed. (I think someone
once wrote here the phone company would point out the proper contacts but
the feds had to do the dirty work themselves.) Anyway, I strongly
doubt ESS was developed mostly to serve the feds' interests because
reasonable means existed before ESS.

> So, while the smiling service rep was talking _you_ into purchasing a
> few of the new features 'which we are now equipped to provide in your
> calling area' the overall intent of ESS was a lot more nefarious. ...

I don't agree with that at all. As mentioned, the ability to trace
calls was _desired_ by the public as a result of severe prank and abuse

The new calling features were not a nickel-dime thing, but a profit
center. Nothing wrong with that. You want plain POTS, fine, continue
paying $4/month. You want call waiting, an extra $3/month. Customer
is happy with the new feature and the phone company is happy with the
revenue. People in more affluent areas liked the new features, liked
the status symbol of having call waiting and putting someone on hold,
and didn't mind paying the money for it.

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