411 out of service for millions of Americans

New York

The operator is off the hook for millions of customers.

Starting in January, AT&T customers with digital landlines will no longer be able to call 411 or 0 to reach a carrier or get directory assistance. AT&T ended carrier services for wireless callers in 2021, although customers with home landlines can still access carriers and directory assistance. Verizon, T-Mobile and other major carriers still offer these services for a fee.

In a notice on AT&T’s website, the company directs customers to look up addresses and phone numbers on Google or online directories.

“Almost all of these customers have access to the Internet to look up this information,” an AT&T spokesperson said.

But a century ago, he worked as an operator Google. Everyone knew it as “Information”.

“The operator was the Internet before the Internet. There’s a nice circularity there,” says Josh Lauer, associate professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire, who has written a book on the cultural history of the telephone.

Operator services were a selling point for customers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The carrier was a key link in the dominant Bell System owned telecommunications network American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T).

The operator became the early face of the telephone, the man behind the evolving and sophisticated technology. This work began to be done primarily by single, middle-class White women, often known as “Hello Girls.” The Bell System, known as Ma Bell, advertised its mostly female operators as servile and attentive—the “Smiling Voice”—to attract and retain customers.

In the 20th century, AT&T offered weather, bus schedules, sports scores, time and date, election results, and other information requests.

“Phone users have commented on it as an efficient way to find them in any information,” wrote Emma Goodmann, associate professor of communications at Clark University, in a 2019 article on the history of telephone operators.

On Halloween in 1938, during a radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, residents of New Jersey believed they were being invaded by Martians and called the operator to learn about the invasion and connect them with their loved ones before the world ended.

Three decades later, a Bell company said a customer called an operator asking if it was a “whale-like” mammal, a woman wanted to know how to get the squirrel out of her house, according to Goodman.

Advances in technology such as the Internet and smartphones, deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the 1980s, and other factors virtually eliminated human operators. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were fewer than 4,000 telephone operators in 2021, down from a peak of nearly 420,000 in the 1970s.

But there are still people who call the operator and ask for directory assistance.

“The use of 411 is not trivial,” the FCC said in a 2019 report. The FCC estimated at the time that 411 received 71 million calls each year.

The first telephone exchange took place in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone.

It was designed to handle business communication, not social calls between locals. Doctors, police, banks and the post office were among the first subscribers.

To connect a call, an operator at the switching office receives the caller’s request and physically connects one line to another.

Bell and other telephone exchanges spread throughout the Northeast. At first, telephone companies mainly hired men and boys to answer calls. But cameraman quickly became a gendered job.

Male managers decided that women were better suited to answer and handle calls from rude customers because they seemed more docile and polite. Companies could also pay them less than men.

Florida International University history professor Kenneth Lipartito wrote in his 1994 article, “When Women Switch,” that telephone companies sought female operators who would present a “relaxed and polite image to their customers.”

Companies emphatically rejected black and ethnic workers, and policies prohibited female operators from marrying. By 1900, over 80% of operators were white, single, US-born women.

In 1932 at Clerkenwell Telephone Exchange

Operator jobs were frantic and repetitive.

Workers had to scan thousands of tiny slots, always keeping their eyes open for lights indicating new calls and ending ones. At peak times, operators were handling several hundred calls an hour, Lipartito said.

The training was also rigorous and the procedures were strict. The women were instructed to modulate their voices to answer the calls more politely and used approved language with the callers.

“Trained in the art of bowing, he acquires the softer qualities of courtesy,” says AT&T’s 1926 video “Training for Service.”

While many of Bell’s independent telephone competitors began using “girlless” automated switches in the early decades of the 20th century, the Bell System remained committed to human operators. Bell believed that automation could not provide the same level of personal service.

“She is one of the 250,000 girls who help you serve well, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He’s your telephone operator,” read one typical Bell Systems magazine ad.

Operators performed an important function because telephone books were often inaccurate and it was impossible to remember updated numbers and addresses of customers.

In the first decades of exchanges, operators also inevitably became hunted for information. It was common for people to call and ask the operator for directions, time and weather, baseball scores, and other questions.

In the early 20th century, telephone companies began to separate requests for data and telephone numbers.

In 1968, the Bell System renamed its information service “directory assistance” because many people took the name too literally.

One of Bell’s commercials stated, “When they called it ‘Information,’ people kept calling it for the wrong reasons.” “Now we’re calling it ‘Teaching Help,’ so we hope you’ll only call it at numbers you can’t find in the phone book.”

Strikes, competition for labor, and rising wages during and after World War I forced Bell to accelerate its automation plans.

In 1920, less than 5% of Bell exchanges had automated switches. Ten years later, more than 30% have been automated, according to a 2019 article by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

The growth of automatic switches gave rise to the direct dial telephone in the 1920s. (The “0” for operator appeared with dial phones, said Lauer of the University of New Hampshire. “Operator” was printed in the “0” position on new Bell dials. The use of “411” also appeared with the dial. era. The “0” was universal for operator assistance. and “411” was the number for directory assistance. In later years, if you dialed “0” and asked for directory assistance, the operator would transfer you to “411.”)

But electronic switches and direct dialing were phased in and did not eliminate the need for human operators.

An old ringing telephone.  The introduction of dialing in the 1920s eliminated the need for telephone operators to connect local calls.

Automatic switches were mainly used for local telephone calls. For decades after the introduction of direct dialing, operators still handled long distance calls, toll calls, and calls to the police and fire department. This meant that operator jobs continued to grow until about the 1970s.

Directory assistance was also largely free to customers until the 1970s, when AT&T began charging customers to prevent “misuse” of the service and to offset the high costs of hiring operators and handling time-consuming requests for information.

“Some people just don’t want to bother looking up the number themselves,” complained the chairman of AT&T in 1974.

In the 1980s, the collapse of AT&T and the deregulation of the telecommunications industry changed carrier and directory services. Telephone companies began cutting operator ranks, automating services, and charging customers for calls.

As companies raised prices, the demand for catalog assistance declined. Meanwhile, the internet and smartphones have emerged to replace these services for most callers.

In 1984, there were 220,000 telephone operators. Ten years later, there were 165,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2004, at the dawn of the smartphone age, 56,000 people worked as telephone operators.

Operator in 1988.  In the 1980s and 1990s, the number of operators decreased dramatically.

David McGarty, president of US Directory Assistance, a provider of services to major carriers, has watched the operator’s transformation firsthand.

According to him, since 1996, calls to operators have decreased by an average of 3% per year, and in general by about 90%.

“We’re content to board the Titanic,” he said.

Although operator services are almost obsolete, it is important to consider emergency situations where a caller needs to reach an operator and customers who still rely on these services, such as low-income callers, the elderly and the disabled, Edward Tenner said. , historian of technology at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. (AT&T said it will still offer free directory assistance to elderly customers and people with disabilities.)

“Tragedies often happen when something is out of the ordinary,” he said.

He also empathized with people who, whether they wanted to or not, had to keep up with technological change.

“There are a lot of people who don’t fit in for a variety of reasons,” Tenner said. “Why should they be forced to move online if they don’t want to?”

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