TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Re: We've Come So Far ...

Re: We've Come So Far ...

John Mayson (
Thu, 21 Jun 2007 21:42:51 -0500

On Wed, 20 Jun 2007, wrote:

> On Jun 18, 6:24 pm, John Mayson <> wrote:

>> I'm still in the 1981 archives. I cannot believe how pompous,
>> protective, and bloated the phone company was then. Telling customers
>> they couldn't have a business and a residential line in the same
>> dwelling. Sarcastic operators and billing employees. Charging
>> through the nose for a simple telephone. Calls to the next town over
>> being a toll call. Metered local calling. Amazing. I really see why
>> AT&T was broken up.

> I do not agree with your description for the reasons that follow.

I am going to trim the reply from hancock4 just to save a little space and
not because I am ignoring his/her very valid points. I don't think Ma
Bell was pure, undistilled evil. And quite frankly I was a little too
young to have any first-hand knowledge. I know my parents, grandparents,
aunts, and uncles all hated The Phone Company. That seemed to be a common
topic when we'd get together, usually circulating around why they didn't
call each other more often. I also have bad memories of my parents
berating me over unintentional toll calls. I would call a friend across
town and get an intercept message instructing me to dial "1" and then the
number. I didn't understand at the time that was phone-speak for "This is
going to be a toll call".

I spent at least half of my childhood in GTE territory, so I technically
wasn't subject of Ma Bell, at least at the local level.

I do understand that AT&T took us from having effectively zero telephone
infrastructure to having service in virtually every nook and cranny of our
very large nation, and making it one of the most reliable systems of any
kind anywhere in the world.

> A common misunderstanding in discussing telephone history is a failure
> to understand the state of technology in 1983. Very simply, think
> about what a good PC cost to buy back then and how much horsepower
> came with it. Now think about what the same money, adjusted for
> inflation, will buy today. See the enormous difference?

Yes, but what drove the PC industry to give us better computers at lower
prices? Competition. If IBM had been granted a de facto monopoly over
the computer industry where you could only lease IBM equipment, couldn't
modify it, couldn't run non-IBM software, and have to rely on IBM for all
repair service, do you think we'd be where we are today with computing?

> Electronics used to be enormously expensive. The Bell System used
> massive amounts of it to provide dial tone, switch local calls, and
> terminate carrier equipment for long distance calls. Today, the
> electronics are cheaper. Also carrier systems for long distance are
> much cheaper today, making those calls cheap, too.

Did telephone service become cheaper before or after 1/1/1984? It's a
serious question, I don't know. I do know with the introduction of
competitive cellular plans in the mid to late 90's and the further
deregulation of the telephone industry dropped prices considerably. None
of that would have been possible if we still had pre-1984 Ma Bell.

> Public policy back then dictated that basic telephone service was to
> be cheap to encourage wide use. It was and it worked. Premium
> services were profitable, again, by public policy. When the company
> was divested and prices allowed to be free market, obviously the
> subsidized prices went up and the premium prices went down. In
> essence, a judge dictated a new public policy, overriding the FCC and
> Congress. So yes, you rented extensions (the main phone set was free,
> included in the service charge). That rent was deemed a premium
> service (of course, they provided all repair service for free).

Was it cheap? When I read what phone service cost back then and
translate into today's dollars, it was outrageously expensive. It's
no wonder people relied on letters.

I don't remember the exact numbers, but I seem to recall adding $40 to my
parent's phone bill with just 5 or 6 calls to a friend from school who
lived outside our local dialing area. I doubt I was on the phone for

> Per the above, the charge for a single plain telephone (telephone set
> and all maintenance included) was dirt cheap, cheaper than today
> adjusted for inflation. They did not "charge through the nose" for
> simple service, and most people had only that.

But did that meet people's needs? I can see maybe a poor pensioner who
only made a couple of calls on Sunday. But even then a family of any size
used the phone too often to make the dirt cheap plan worthwhile.

> Many communities did not meter local calls; that was more of a city
> function, and the calling area for cities was enormous, both in terms
> of land area and population. One could pay extra and get unmetered
> service, many did.

But that counters what you said before. It sounds like the cheap
service didn't meet people's needs. It seems analagous to offering a
cable TV customer a cheap plan, but telling them they can watch only
C-SPAN for an hour a day, otherwise they're going to be charge extra.
That might work for a few people, but for most it's too restrictive.

AFAIK, we didn't have metered calling in Tampa with GTE. I had an aunt in
southern New Jersey who insisted we kept even local calls as short as
possible because their calls were metered. She was in what was New Jersey
Bell territory.

> In my dealings with Bell staff, both at work and at home, I found them
> to be almost always knowledgeable and helpful. Service qualtiy was
> far superior to that of today. When you called repair service,
> dialing only 611, you spoke to a real craftsmen at a test desk.

The people I worked with at AT&T were sharp. They could rattle off the
most arcane information about the various switches, etc. As a child I
never dealt with anyone with the phone company, but it's my understanding
they were rude and unresponsive.

> Somehow I don't think "competition" was intended to work that way, I
> thought the market place was supposed to be allowed to choose for
> itself. If the old Bell System was as screwed up as critics claimed,
> it would've been easy for Sprint and MCI to come in and take over.
> But the truth was that by and large the old Bell System was good and
> most customers were quite satisfied.

And that may be. But I still hold to my belief that if we hand't broken
up AT&T, we would be paying for it today.

> Also, the Bell System provided many free consulting services to
> businesses to help them plan their telecom needs and make good use of
> their phones. This included training for employees, in not only how
> to use the equipment (what buttons to push) but also how to best serve
> customers and create goodwill.

I'm sure there was more to it than just goodwill. Properly trained
customers would not rely so much on customer support, or could at least
maintain some semblance of in-house technical support.

Also, what about companies that didn't additional support? Why should
they pay for a service they do not need?

> As to telecom administration, large companies had to go out and hire
> their own administrators and technicians to do what used to be done
> for free. Small companies had to hire consultants. So the so-called
> savings were in reality a cost shifting. You may have paid less in
> your phone bill, but had to pay more in salaries.

> Lastly, I want to counter another myth and that is that divesture
> forced rates down. The truth is that technology caused rates to drop.
> The Bell System was reducing toll rates ever since the telephone was
> invented. Well before divesture AT&T implemented deep discounts for
> off peak calling and was expanding local calling areas. As technology
> improved (see above), customers were given price breaks. Likewise
> with technology, the Bell System's 1983 equipment offerings were
> pretty good for its day.

Again though, would equipment costs have dropped without competition? I
don't think they would.

It's not my intent to start a flame war. :-) From my vantage point,
this is how I see it. I had no direct experience with the phone
company until 1987. My family talked about Ma Bell the same way they
talked about the IRS or the driver's license folks. And I had two
family members who worked for Ma Bell (not my dad who was at GTE,

It absolutely baffled me that four years after the break-up, my fellow
AT&T employees were still in denial about what had happened. I was
hired to write programs, namely dBase and a language called ESCORT,
and then later Unix and C. I saw opportunities to computerize our
group. They were doing a lot of tasks by hand. I thought it was
crazy to have someone print out reams of circuit orders, highlight a
certain code, then sort the hundreds of orders by hand and walk them
to the appropriate supervisor who would then further breakdown the
stack to his/her individual employees to process. I came up with the
idea of pulling that information into our 3B2 and emailing it to the
proper person, or even using ESCORT to process the orders. It was
never even considered. Yes, the manual way kept an entire building's
worth of people employed, but at what cost? What if a sheet of paper
was dropped or the printer jammed? Was that order lost forever? My
last job at AT&T was part of a project to reconcile circuit
information versus billing records. It had been such a manual process
we had customers out there who had been getting service for free while
others, believe it or not, were being billed (and they were paying)
for circuits that didn't exist.

I was saddened to see AT&T slowly die over the 90's. But I think they
were a victim of their own monopolistic history. I think we, the
consumer, are better off today than we would have been had AT&T not been
broken up.

John Mayson <>
Austin, Texas, USA

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: I had the same thing happen to me in
about 1977 or so. I was living in a residential hotel on the near
north of Chicago, which had switchboard service in each room. I chose
to have a private phone put in my apartment plus the hotel switchboard
phone. For one _year_ afterward, I did not get a bill for it. Someone
in outside plant somehow lost the paperwork, and billing did not get
it, so as they were concerned, the line was still not in use.

Then one day after about a year, some @#$@@%$ phreak decided to charge
a long distance call to my number. Charges went through the system but
'fell out' when the billing department tried to bill my number. The
bogus charge went into the 'suspense' account where it sat for another
month until a 'suspense analyst' got around to working on it. Telco
tried their usual tricks (calling the distant end, claiming 'our
operator made a mistake in copying down the number of the person who
called you' etc ... asking that person to help identify the caller,
but they decided the call _did_ 'belong' to my number. Suspense
analysts' next trick was to try dialing my number to see if it was a
working number, he found out it was. Next call was to plant asking
them 'when did you turn on this line, and why don't we have the paper
work?' When the first bill came to me in the mail, it was for service
to the date of the bill (13 months) PLUS the usual service for one
month in advance, AND (but of course!) the bogus long distance call.
Several hundred dollars for the total bill!

I called Miss Prissy and appealed to her: would she please write off
the charges to that date and let me start fresh from there? Her
response was "you knew good and well what was going on, you hoped we
would not discover it!" The old Bell was pretty good about writing off
almost anything at least once but she would not do it. "All I can do
is give you a payment plan of three months to pay it, and I will write
off the bogus long distance call. After all, you _knew_ what happened
was wrong!" I could not legitimatly argue with that; it only took me
a month or two after the bills did not show up each month to know
something was wrong. I told her thanks, and agreed to her repayment
plan. PAT]

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