411 is going out of service for millions of Americans

New York

Operators are not looking after their millions of customers.

Starting in January, AT&T customers with digital landlines will not be able to dial 411 or 0 to reach an operator or get directory assistance. AT&T will end operator service for wireless callers in 2021, but landline customers will still have access to operator and directory help. Verizon, T-Mobile, and other major carriers still offer these services for a fee.

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

An AT&T spokesperson said, “Nearly all of these customers go to the Internet to search for this information.

But a century ago, operators worked like this: Google. Everyone knew it as “information”.

“Operators were the internet before the internet. .

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

The operator became the early face of the phone and the man behind the emerging and complex technology. The job became dominated by middle-class single women known as “hello girls”. Bell System, known as Marvel, advertised its predominantly female operators as docile and attentive “The Voice with a Smile” in order to attract and retain customers.

Back in the 20th century, AT&T provided weather, bus schedules, sports results, dates and times, election results, and other information requests.

“Telephone users interpreted her as an efficient way to find places. Any information,” wrote Emma Goodman, assistant professor of communications at Clark University, in a 2019 paper on the history of telephone operators.

On the eve of Halloween 1938, when “War of the Worlds” was being broadcast on Orson Welles’ radio broadcast, residents of New Jersey believed a Martian invasion and sought information about the invasion, seeking information about the invasion before the world ended. I desperately called the operator to connect with my loved ones.

Thirty years later, while a woman wanted to know how to evict a squirrel from her home, Goodman said, a customer called her operator asking if it was a “whale-like” mammal.

Advances in technology such as the Internet and smartphones, deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the 1980s, and other factors have made human operators virtually extinct. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the number of telephone operators will be below his 4,000 in 2021, down from a peak of about 420,000 in the 1970s.

However, there are still people who call the operator and request help with the directory.

In a 2019 report, the FCC said, “Using 411 is important. At the time, the FCC estimated that 411 was being called 71 million times a year.

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

It is designed to handle business communications, not social calls between local residents. Doctors, police, banks and post offices were some of the first subscribers.

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

Bell and other telephone exchanges are spread throughout the Northeast. In the beginning, telephone companies primarily hired men and boys to answer the calls. However, the operator soon became a sex job.

A male manager decided that women were better suited to answer and hook up with calls from rude customers because they were seen as more submissive and polite. Companies may also pay less than men.

Kenneth Ripartito, a history professor at Florida International University, wrote in his 1994 paper, “When Women Switch,” that telephone companies wanted female operators who projected an “image of comfort and class” to their customers. rice field.

Companies rejected black or ethnic workers with accents, and policies prohibited female operators from marrying. By 1900, more than 80% of her operators were white single U.S.-born women.


The operator’s work was frenetic and repetitive.

Employees had to scan thousands of tiny jacks and were constantly on the lookout for lights that indicated new and terminated calls. At peak times, Ripartito said, the operator was handling hundreds of calls an hour.

The training was rigorous and the procedures were rigorous. The women were instructed to adjust their voices to respond more politely and used approved language for the caller.

A 1926 AT&T video, “Training for Service,” states, “By training her intonation, she will develop a softer politeness.”

Many of Bell’s independent telephone rivals began using “girlless” automatic switches in the first decade of the 20th century, but the Bell system relied on human operators. Automation, he believed, could not provide the same level of personalized service.

“She’s one of the 250,000 girls who help you serve you well, day or night, seven days a week. She’s your telephone operator,” typified Bell Systems magazine. read the ad.

Operators played a key role, as phone books were often inaccurate and customers could not be expected to remember updated numbers and addresses.

During the first few decades of the exchange, the operator unintentionally also became an information catchall. It was common to call the operator and ask for directions, times and weather, baseball game results, and other questions.

By the early 20th century, telephone companies began to separate requests for information from requests for phone numbers.

In 1968, Bell System changed the name of its information service to “Directory Assistance”. This is because too many people took the name too literally.

“When she was called ‘Information,’ people kept calling her for the wrong reasons,” a Bell ad said at the time. I call her ‘Telephone Assistance’ because I want her to call me only.”

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

In 1920, less than 5% of bell switchboards had automatic switches. According to his 2019 article for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, 10 years later, more than 30% have been automated.

The proliferation of automatic switchboards led to the advent of direct-dial telephones in the 1920s. According to Lauer of the University of New Hampshire, the operator “0” was used in rotary phones. On newer bell dials, the “operator” was printed at the “0” position. The dial also reveals the use of “411”. ‘0’ became the general number for operator assistance, and ‘411’ became the number for directory assistance. forwarded to

However, the gradual introduction of electronic exchanges and direct dials did not eliminate the need for human operators.

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

Automated exchanges were primarily used for local calls. Decades after the introduction of direct dial, operators still handled long distance calls, toll calls, and calls to police and fire departments. This meant that the operator’s job continued to increase until his 1970s or so.

It wasn’t until AT&T began charging customers in the 1970s to curb the “misuse” of the service and reduce the high cost of hiring carriers to process time-consuming information queries that they used directory assistance. was also mostly free.

AT&T’s chairman said in 1974, “Some people just don’t want to bother looking up numbers themselves.

The demise of AT&T and the deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the 1980s changed carriers and directory services. Telephone companies began cutting operator ranks, automating services, and charging customers for calls.

Demand for directory assistance plummeted as companies increased prices. Meanwhile, the Internet and smartphones have emerged as a replacement for 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 era, 56,000 people were employed as telephone operators.

Operator in 1988. A sharp drop in operator ranks in the 1980s and his 1990s

David McGarty, president of US Directory Assistance, which provides services to major carriers, has seen the operator transformation firsthand.

Calls to operators have dropped an average of 3% a year since he started in 1996, and about 90% overall, he said.

“We are happy to be on the Titanic,” he said.

Operator services may be largely outdated, but emergencies that require callers to contact operators and customers who still rely on these services, such as low-income callers, the elderly, and people with disabilities. According to Edward Tenner, it is important to consider , Technology Historian at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. (AT&T said it will continue to offer free directory assistance to elderly customers and people with disabilities.)

“When something is exceptional, tragedy often happens,” he said.

He also sympathized with those who, like it or not, are forced to keep up with technological change.

“There are a lot of people who haven’t adapted for various reasons,” Tenner said. “Why should they be forced to migrate to the web if they don’t want to?”

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