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View Diary: My Little Town 20111228: Telephone Calls (190 comments)

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  •  Oh, fun! Expert input here. (20+ / 0-)

    Telephone switching systems engineer here, been in the industry for nearly 30 years.

    That old electromechanical exchange was in fact more robust than today's infrastructure.  It was immune to electromagnetic pulse from nuclear weapons, and just about anything else short of a direct hit from a strong tornado.  The Bell System put a premium on robustness and reliability, and this was reflected in the design of all of the infrastructure at all levels.  


    Party lines used a single 2-wire circuit (we call a 2-wire circuit a "pair", as in "a pair of wires") connected to all of the houses sharing the line.  There were basically two systems for enabling the ringing to be selective to the specific party being called.  One involved the way in which the ringer (bell mechanism) in the phone was wired with respect to Earth ground; the other involved the use of different frequencies of ringing current and ringers that were tuned to respond to only their chosen frequency (ten separate frequencies ranging from 16 Hz to 66 Hz).  


    The reason the telcos insisted on exclusive ownership of the telephone sets in houses was in part due to technical requirements such as for the special wiring and special ringers used for party lines.  In part it was a regulatory issue, whereby the telephone sets as well as the rest of the infrastructure were designed to last typically 40 years, and were factored into the rate base, as a means of cross-subsidizing local service.  

    Thus a wealthy family might have lots of phones around the house, paying a dollar or two per month for each one, and thereby subsidizing poor families who might have only one phone.  High long distance rates were also part of this quasi-socialistic regulatory system, subsidizing local service.   And yes, even the long receiver cord was part of that plan.  

    But you got something else at the same time: unlimited free repairs, including free replacement of inside wiring and telephones whenever necessary.  


    The old "regulated monopoly" model was part of the progressive politics of the era, whereby utilities were limited to a fixed profit margin (typically less than 10%) and where rates were set up in a manner to favor extending service to people and places that might not be served under today's nearly laissez-faire economics.  


    And last but not least (for the moment), there was one other thing your oldschool dial phone didn't do: spy on you.   It didn't take your picture when you weren't looking.  It didn't listen in on you when it was on the hook.  It didn't track you wherever you went.  It just sat there until you made or received a phone call.  Somehow people managed to get along with this just fine, even if it meant they couldn't play Angry Birds on a 4" screen.  

    "Minus one vote for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

    by G2geek on Wed Dec 28, 2011 at 11:50:10 PM PST

    [ Parent ]

    •  A righteous rant. n/t (4+ / 0-)

      "Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous." -- Molly Ivins

      by dumpster on Thu Dec 29, 2011 at 02:51:58 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Anyone who uses the term (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      oceanview, WI Deadhead, Quicklund

      "Earth ground" has my utmost respect.  The term "ground" is too ambiguous, and you make it very clear.

      I appreciate the inside information that you have given, and as almost always the case I almost always learn more than I impart when I write.  I say it explicitly on my Pique the Geek series, but I should say it on all of my pieces.  The comments are almost always the best part of my pieces.

      Please accept my best wishes for a very Happy New Year!

      Warmest regards,


      I do not believe in anything.

      by Translator on Thu Dec 29, 2011 at 05:14:18 PM PST

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    •  Party lines remained a special case (1+ / 0-)
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      In 1968, the FCC's Carterfone ruling broke the monopoly on terminal equipment -- things attached to the phone line.  So you could own your own phone or business phone system.  This opened up huge progress, and allowed things like modems, answering machines, and faxes to catch on.  Yes, they did exist under Ma Bell, but the rentals were exorbitant, not mass-market products.

      For the first few years, such devices required a "protective coupling arrangement", and didn't use standard plugs. But in the mid-1970s, the FCC implemented Registration, by which equipment could be approved (registered) for direct attachment. This is what really opened things up for consumers.  (A business PBX could use a PCA, but it didn't work for a home phone.)  However, registration has always had an exception for party lines.  Those phones had to come from the telco, or at least be approved by the telco for the purpose.

      Party lines are now obsolete.  They still exist in some tariffs, but grandfathered, and if you still have one, you're probably the only party still on your party line. Some new switching equipment doesn't even support party line operation -- no need.  But then the price of telephone switching equipment has fallen by over 90% in the past 20 years!  The wire's still expensive, but cheap electronics can be used to multiplex calls over it. Not that it always works so well.  Sloppy engineering is still endemic in some telephone companies.

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