Operator, May I Help You? (Fall, 2009)

Hello, and greetings from the Central Office! It’s autumn in Puget Sound country, which means the skies have returned to their usual leaden gray. It also means leaves from my no-good, lazy unemployed neighbor’s trees are covering my lawn. After all, he’s too busy cashing unemployment checks and watching “Jerry Springer” to do any actual work. I’m thinking of returning this week’s batch of leaves in his mailbox, special delivery, with a few extra copies of his overdue phone bill and maybe a rotting salmon carcass for good measure.

All this fuming got me to thinking what would happen if my deadbeat neighbor’s line is disconnected for non-payment. He’ll probably be reduced to calling his parents collect to beg them for money. I’m not a big fan of my neighbor, but I like his parents, and I’d hate for them to be stuck with a whopper of a bill. Although 97% of collect calls are from prisons and jails, there are still a healthy number of collect calls in the mix. And as it turns out, unlike in the good old days of the Bell System where rates were high but at least consistent, today’s collect calling rates range from high to completely outrageous.

Younger readers growing up in the world of unlimited cell phone plans and unlimited long distance may not even know what a collect call is, or how to use other types of operator handled calls. In a world where long distance calling is effectively free, it’s very unusual for many types of operator handled calls to be made these days. However, the following operator handled call types are still available from AT&T long distance operators and from local ILEC phone company operators (although you may have trouble finding an operator who actually knows how to place them).

Picture of telephone operators

Operators in 1952 had no trouble placing any kind of call. (Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives)

All billing for operator-handled calls is either based on a station-to-station or person-to-person call:

Station to Station: This is the same billing as just dialing 1+(NPA) NXX-XXXX direct, but you can have an operator dial the call for you. Operator dialed station-to-station calls are generally handled for visually impaired or disabled customers, and extra charges are waived for such customers. In general, operators only dial station-to-station calls for ordinary customers when they report trouble on the line, and surcharges are also waived in such instances. However, station-to-station rates can also apply to calls with special billing arrangements or where time and charges is requested.

Person to Person: When long distance calls were very expensive (particularly international long distance calls), you took a big financial risk by calling station-to-station. If the person you were trying to reach wasn’t there, but someone else answered the phone, you’d still have to pay for the call. With a person-to-person call, the operator takes the name of the person you are attempting to reach and will try to contact that person directly. You are only connected (and charged for the call) if the operator can reach your party. Of course, a hefty surcharge is collected for this service.

Once you decide the type of call you want to make (assumed to be station-to-station if you don’t specify otherwise), you must decide how to pay:

Calling Number: You can bill the phone number from which you’re calling—provided it’s not blocked. This billing method is often used by PBX and VMB phreaks. Believe it or not, some COCOTS allow this too!

Calling card: The ILECs and many independent phone companies issue calling cards. These can be used all over the world to charge calls to your home telephone bill—generally at outrageous rates. These are different than calling cards issued by long distance carriers, for which calls are billed directly rather than being billed through your telephone company. Note long distance carriers can bill ILEC calling cards, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

Collect: When you make a collect call, it’s free to you. However, the person you are calling must agree to pay the charges. Overseas, this is called a “reverse charge” call. Speaking of calling overseas, it’s possible to call phone numbers in the US collect using the dominant fixed line carrier (such as NTT in Japan, BT in the UK, Telkom in South Africa, etc.) and vice-versa.

Third Number: You can bill someone else’s phone number for a call you want to make. In fact, you can call anywhere in the world—as long as they agree to pay the charges. You wouldn’t believe how often people will agree to pay for your calls!

Time and Charges: You can request that a call be placed with “time and charges.” The operator will place the call with the type and billing you direct. After the call is completed, an operator will come back on the line to say how long you talked and how much the call cost.

Busy Line Interrupt: If you claim there is an emergency and agree to pay a fee for the service, an operator can break in and interrupt a call in progress. The operator will not connect your call to the existing call in progress, but will inform the called party that you are trying to reach them.

Busy Line Verification: An operator can verify that a line that rings busy is actually busy (not just off hook).

It’s worth noting that CLEC, independent, mobile phone and competitive long distance carriers are not generally required to offer operator services, except to the disabled. Where they do so, available services may vary. It can be fun finding out which services are offered, and how accurate the billing is.

But I digress. Back to my pitiful neighbor and the collect call he’ll be making to his parents. The traditional way to call collect (from either a fortress phone or a POTS line) is to dial 0 plus the area code and phone number you’re calling. You’ll hear a “bong” tone, at which time you dial 0. Either an operator or (as is usually the case these days) an automated operator will ask you what type of call you are making: collect, billed to a third number, or billed to a calling card. If you’re calling collect or billing a third number, a Line Information Database (LIDB) lookup is processed on the back end to determine whether the number you are calling is authorized for billing. In general, only fixed-line residential and business numbers can be billed for such calls, and most CLECs and VoIP providers do not support this billing type. Assuming that this criteria is met (and believe me, given the number of disconnect orders I’m processing on a daily basis, it’s a rapidly dwindling criteria) you’ll be asked for your name. Otherwise, you’ll be asked to pay another way.

The operator will then dial the number you are billing and will ask if the charges are authorized. If someone at that number accepts the charges, your call will be connected. If it’s a collect call, you’ll be connected to the number you’re billing; if it’s a third-party billed call, you’ll be connected to the number you’re calling.

Third-party billed calls are not always verified before they are connected; this is at the discretion of the carrier and generally depends upon the type of phone you’re calling from. For example, if you’re calling from a home telephone or business line, AT&T will third-party bill calls without verification provided that a LIDB lookup indicates the line can be billed (or the LIDB lookup fails, which happens occasionally). If charges are disputed by the third party, AT&T will back-charge the originating number. However, if the charges are again disputed, AT&T simply eats the loss and blacklists the originating number for future unverified third-party billed calls.

When you follow the standard procedure to place a “0+” call, you will more likely than not be connected to an “alternative operator service” or AOS. OCI was one of the first carriers in this market, charging very high rates to consumers and paying fat commissions to owners of payphones choosing their services. Their operator service platform was poorly designed and their operators were poorly trained, so was frequently exploited by phreaks in the early 1990s. Even today, shady AOS practices continue; consumer complaints are rampant about charges exceeding $5 per minute for collect calls. Muddying the picture further are toll-free “dial-around” services such as 1-800-FAIRCALL and 1-800-COLLECT, which are completely unregulated. Here are some example rates for a collect call:

  • 1-800-ONE-DIME: Operated by Sprint; 10 cents per minute plus a $2.99 operator surcharge.
  • 1-800-COLLECT: Operated by Verizon; $4.99-$6.49 surcharge, 55 cent additional payphone surcharge, $1.59 per minute + 12.9% USF + tax.
  • 1-800-CALL-ATT: This service allows collect calls to prepaid and post-paid cell phones from AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile post-paid accounts. The charge is a flat $9.99 for up to 20 minutes. If you’re calling a land line using 1-800-CALL-ATT, it’s paradoxically more expensive: there is a $7.50 surcharge and the rate is $1.29 per minute plus 12.9% USF + tax.
  • 1-800-CALL4LES(S): $3.99 surcharge, 25 cents per minute flat, allows billing to cell phones (excluding Verizon and Alltel).
  • Qwest 0+: For intraLATA calls in Washington state, 50 cents to connect and 45 cents per minute.

The ability to call cellular phones collect is a relatively new development. To accomplish this, carriers use the premium SMS platform for billing (I have written about this topic previously).

Well, I’m out of space in this column, so it’s time to rake my lawn again and bring this issue of the Telecom Informer to a close. I’ll see you again in the winter. In the meantime, keep our operators busy making person-to-person third party billed calls with time and charges!

 

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