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The Slow Death of Operator Services

Starting this month, AT&T customers with digital telephones can no longer dial 411 to get information or dial 0 to get an operator. We’re seeing the beginning of the end of operator services. AT&T still offers this service to copper landlines but already cut this service last year for cellular customers.

This is a big change for the telephone industry, although most people will barely notice. When the industry was new, all calls were processed by operators who sat at switchboards and made manual connections to connect a calling party to the called party. Over time the switching function got automated so that people could directly dial a telephone number.

But operator services remained a major part of the telephone business. Young folks who have grown up with the Internet can’t remember back to a time, not that long ago, when everybody dialed 411 from time to time. There was no way to find the phone number of a person or business outside your local area without calling an operator. Every landline customer got a fixed number of free 411 calls every month, and then you’d pay for the service. Calling to ask for a number didn’t always work because about 10% of homes paid extra to have an unlisted number, meaning it wasn’t published in the directory or given out by 411 operators. It was sometimes hard to find a number if you weren’t sure about the spelling of somebody’s name.

I remember how hard it used to be to find businesses in other cities. You’d have to guess how they were listed in the white pages, which was often different than the name you knew them by. A good directory assistance operator was worth their weight in gold. I can remember calling 411 before moving to a new city to connect my utilities. I’d have no idea the name of the electric company or know the number to call to connect water or telephone service. A good operator could get you the right numbers on one try.

There was a time when dialing 0 for operator was a big deal. The operator could help you with all sorts of things. The disabled could get the operator to dial a call for them. In the days before cell phones and long-distance deregulation, the phone companies helped millions of people every day place collect calls. If your car broke down, a collect call was how you called home for help.

The telephone operator played another important role in the community. Operators got calls from kids who were home alone, elderly who were lonely, and folks feeling suicidal. Particularly at non-busy hours, operators were known to provide a sympathetic ear. Operators were also the predecessor to 911 – you dialed 0 for fires, medical emergencies, and to report a crime in progress. See this ad from AT&T that promoted calling the operator.

I have a personal anecdote about the operator function. I worked in management at Southwestern Bell, and during a union strike, I was assigned to an operator center to work a switchboard. A few days into the strike, I got a call from a woman at a payphone whose husband was having a heart attack. It turns out that this payphone was located at the intersection of the borders of three municipalities, each with its own emergency services. I called the City of St. Louis first and was told that address was not in their jurisdiction. I also chose wrong on the next call, and it took three calls to connect to the right ambulance service. As you might imagine, this shook me since I knew I time was of the essence in trying to save this man’s life. I never knew what happened to this gentleman because, in the life of the operator, I had to immediately move on to the next call. Operators somehow stayed sane while taking these kinds of calls every day.

Operator services have been diminishing in importance for many years. The introduction of 911 rerouted calls for emergencies directly to the right folks – although to this day, operators still get emergency calls. The Internet became the yellow pages, and you can find most, but not all, businesses online. The real death knell for operator services was the cellphone. I knew operator services would become obsolete after buying a flip phone that remembered every number I had ever called. I can’t recall the last time I called an operator, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 20 years ago. But it’s been comforting to know that a friendly operator was there if I ever needed help.

2 replies on “The Slow Death of Operator Services”

During a strike when working as an operator, I was able to help a couple get married by finding an out-of-state justice of the peace, a motel, etc. It was a slow night and I picked up every call from their exchange.

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