Monday 26 Sep 2016

Long Distance
Matt Seinberg

I remember when I was a kid it was a big deal to make and get long distance telephone calls. This was when Ma Bell was a monopoly and pretty much charged whatever they wanted, along with renting the phones you used.


Once, it was a big deal to make a long-distance phone call.

Do you remember the term "message units?" Every month, your phone number got a certain number of these message units for local, regional and long distance phone calls. God help you if you went over those units!

It was a big deal to call someone outside of New York City. I remember having to ask my parents if I could. The only calls that my sister and I could make without having to ask permission was for my grandparents, both of who lived in Brooklyn and, later, Florida.

How's this for crazy? I was visiting my grandparents in Hallandale, Florida in 1978, and was calling WHYI-FM Y100 like crazy. They had two phone numbers, one each for Dade and Broward counties. I had no idea what county Hallandale was in, so I just called whichever number wasn't busy. I also called the office number quite frequently.

My grandfather told me about a month later that his phone bill skyrocketed that month from all the calls I made. I sheepishly apologized, and let him continue his rant until he ran out of steam.


'Phone freaks' worked around phone technology for free calls.

When I was in junior high school and lived in Spring Valley, New York, I had some friends called as "phone phreaks." They claimed, if you ran an extension box, with a phone, which AT&T didn't own, you could make free phone calls. It sounded great, but it wasn't true.

Then I moved to Long Island and found another group of phone phreaks. They build little boxes that could do any number of things, including listening in on phone calls in the house without anyone knowing about it. This came in handy when I wanted to listen to my sister talking to her friends on the phone: sorry, Elyse.

Then there was another box that would make sounds like a touch-tone phone and fool the phone company computers into thinking the caller deposited the money in a pay phone. Remember those, I do.

My favourite technology was going out at night with a portable telephone company phone that one of my friends "acquired." We'd go behind a bank of stores, after they closed, open up their phone company boxes, hook up the phone and call anyone we wanted. We just had to be careful that passing cars didn't see us and call the cops.


Then the government broke up the AT&T monopoly.

All of a sudden, phones changed. The government broke up AT&T, in 1984, and, suddenly, there were seven regional operating companies, nicknamed Baby Bells. AT&T was now a long distance provider, but still owned Western Electric, their manufacturing arm.

It was at this point that message units went away and different calling packages were available, with the customers having a choice of who to have as their long distance carrier. In addition, customers could now purchase their phones directly from anyone they wanted, and no longer had to lease them from AT&T.

Then the days of corded phones started to fade away. The wireless spectrum was open by the government. Wireless or, at least, cordless phones, became commonplace.

Please don't get me started on cell phones.

Matt Seinberg lives on Long Island, a few minutes east of New York City. He looks at everything around him and notices much. Somewhat less cynical than dyed in the wool New Yorkers, Seinberg believes those who don't see what he does like reading about what he sees and what it means to him. Seinberg columns revel in the silly little things of life and laughter as well as much well-directed anger at inept, foolish public officials. Mostly, Seinberg writes for those who laugh easily at their own foibles as well as those of others.

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