The De-evolution of the Telephone System

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The De-evolution of the Telephone System

Post by Nanook » Thu Sep 20, 2018 5:03 pm

I worked for PNB / US West / Qwest (which is now owned by Century Link) from 1978-1995. I just now had a dream of working there, even though it's been 23 years, that inspired me to write about it.

When I started, George Walker was the company President. George Walker was a guy that had worked his way up the ranks from a lineman to the Presidents office. George Walker knew the business and was committed to good customer service.

When I started service was the number one thing, nothing else mattered more. To the degree that it was less than perfect it was pretty much the best the technology of the day could provide. It wasn't a result of cost cutting or other human considerations. We did everything humanly possible to provide the best service the technology of the day allowed.

The records back then were kept in paper bins. Most of the switches were electromechanical, not operating under stored program control. Those that were under control consisted of electromechanical switched operated by computers that used discrete transistors. Many thousands of circuit packs consuming many tens of thousands of watts of electricity to effect an 8 Mhz CPU cycle speed. Permanent memory was stored on aluminum cards with little bar magnets glued to them. There were 64 words of 44 bits on each card. Of these 37 bits were instruction or data, the rest was parity and hamming for error correction. Our first #1ESS was already 13 years old when I started with the company, it was installed in Bellevue Glencourt in 1965. The CPUs were duplicated and had matching circuitry. They ran in step and any error caused a mis-match which was discovered by the matching circuitry which would then invoke diagnostics to determine which until was in error and remove it from service.

The software for the #1ESS was extremely efficient. It allowed an 8Mhz CPU to effective service more than 100,000 calls per hour in Bellevue Glencourt.

The switching fabric of these machines were built around a special type of ferreed switch called a remreed. It was called a remreed because rather than requiring a continuously applied external magnetic field to close, the remreed switches reeds were made out of a ferrous material that could be magnetized or demagnetized by an external force and then would remember and either stay closed or open.

What was amazing to me about the early technology was the sheer cleverness of it's implementation. So much functionality was squeezed out of so little and primitive, by
today's standards, technology. Back in those days we would have anywhere from 2-5 technicians in a central office, and often a much larger crew of special services people, these were people who would wire up design circuits for customers. Things like getting a radio station connected from it's studios to it's transmitter, private networks, and alarm circuits.

What I saw over the 17 years I was there was an explosive evolution of hardware sophistication along with a destruction of management infrastructure and later overall personnel infrastructure. The company gradually evolved from one in which nothing mattered more than customer service to nothing mattered more than profits. Although both the costs of capital infrastructure and the cost of maintenance decreased substantially over the years, the cost of a basic phone line went from around $8 to about $60/month today.

As we prepared to comply with the AT&T consent decree in which ATT would sell off all of it's local exchange carriers including PNB, for whom I worked, we were told that new "holding companies" would be formed, but management and the way we did business would remain the same. This was the biggest boldest lie ever told.

Under George Walker's rule a hell of a lot of trust was placed in employees. I had a key that would get me into pretty much any PNB facility except the Presidents office and a couple of doors in the tunnel between main and mutual. One door lead down to train tracks some 50 feet below the buildings, and the other to the main power room was exceptionally huge and dangerous. Because there was still a lot of cross-bar equipment the normal current in the power bus was around 5,000 AMPS and God only knows what the fault current capabilities were but it was something truly phenomenal. I could get into power rooms at any other facility except main.

Very little was walled off. We'd have several switches on a floor with no wall between the CPUs and switches, the switches and main frames and we had under ground tunnels connecting three buildings, 1101 4th Avenue (now a Hotel), 1122 3rd avenue (Main), and 1200 3rd avenue (Mutual, now a retain center).

Fairly early on several things happened after the break-up. They relieved George Walker of his duty and most of the upper management. They were replaced by a bunch of MBAs with zero knowledge of the business. They split the company up into 17 subsidiaries, one of which held all the property and they managed by some tricky stock manipulations to get most of that property into their own pockets. We then leased back many of the properties no longer owned by the company.

They took away our keys and put card locks on all the doors so they could limit us to only where we needed to go and keep track of our entries and exits. By this time a number of #1ESS machines including the mains had been upgraded to #1AESS. In the mains they walled of the #1AESS CPUs from everything else with no reason given. In some ways it was nice as the clatter of 100,000 relays was at least dampened by the walls but it also made you less aware of the operational status of the machine. When the walls were not there, you could hear when something was wrong, a frame was acting up, etc. Now you were not able to be so aware of what the periphery was doing while you were doing work involving the CPUs.

Along with the new CPU technology, the #1AESS also brought new switching fabric technology. Although the old equipment was still supported, a newer much smaller switching fabric consisting of remreed grid switches as a sealed unit and many switches per grid. This freed up a lot of floor space and we started seeing things like customer equipment being placed there. I suppose this was one of the reasons they had to segment our access more. It was one thing if our own equipment were affected by an employee, quite another if it was a customers, and just the psychological aspects of allowing the customer to feel their equipment is secure.

Another disturbing trend I saw was the use of our test equipment by law enforcement authorities to bug customers phone lines. All of our switches were equipped with what were called number test verticals. This basically offered a way to connect into an existing line or trunk and monitor it. The original purpose of these were to troubleshoot problems in the circuits but it ended up being used heavily by law enforcement for monitoring. Another disturbing change was in what we called AMA which was basically the accounting data necessary to charge someone for usage, being it on a measured rate line or a long distance call. Initially we only recorded chargeable information on these but later we started recording the meta data to all calls. A lot of expense was associated with this and when I asked why we were doing it they never provided an answer. Well now Edward Snowden has told us the answer.

When I started, the second line there was Bill Pittman. I didn't like Bill because he wasn't exactly a people person. If he was walking by and you attempted to ask him a question and he didn't like you, he would just keep walking as if you didn't exist. But I respected Bill, he was extremely technically knowledgeable and he was extremely customer service oriented.

Jan Cyre was also technically knowledgeable and very service conscious but she was also quite a bit more personable, at least towards me, than Bill was. She was still a no-nonsense get the job done whatever it takes manager but she solicited input from people and would at least take a minute to listen to input if you had an idea you wanted to bring to her. I had a lot of respect for here.

Denny Eckhert was another great second line and really the last in the line because the next person we got was not technically knowledgeable, I mean she didn't even know how to use a fax machine. I don't even remember her name and if I did I wouldn't name it as I do feel when you can't say something nice about someone it's better not to say anything at all. I only bring this up to demonstrate the type of decisions that upper management was making as we got further into being US West and eventually Qwest.

By this time we had replaced pretty much all of the electromechanical switches and some of the #1 and #1AESS switches with #5ESS switches. The #5 went away from a central processor driving everything to distributed intelligence. The central processor was now a 3B20D which is a dual 3B20 processor with matching circuitry. This switch used a much different software architecture. Still very much table driven in terms of translations but unlike the #1 and #1A ESS which was coded mostly in assembly language, this new processor ran Unix-RTR and was mostly coded in the C processing language. By this time we also had some switches from other vendors, Erickson and Northern Telecom. I was never trained in the DMS 100 switches so I do not know what they used for an operating system but I do know they were coded in Pascal. They never handled the traffic they were advertised as being able to handle and from a maintenance perspective it was a real pain in the ass even though I didn't work on it, I worked on switches with trunking to it and they would take the circuits out of service because it was taking too long to respond.

If we had encountered this in PNB time we would have taken immediate action to address the service issue, instead we kept demanding they fix it and so these problems went on for a very long time. Customers would have to wait a long time for dial-tone. They'd get re-order when they dialed a number because all the trunks were out of service and somehow this seemed to be okay with management. As an employee who still believed customer service should be number one in priority I really felt out of place and frustrated working in this environment.

Another thing I didn't like about working in the field was the lack of any company. Used to be there were at least two of us in a central office, now one of us would go between five different central office and do the bare minimal maintenance to keep them alive.

I went from doing maintenance and/or surveillance from the Switching Control Center, basically watching for troubles, doing pattern analysis on switching fabric failures, etc, to doing cutover work. There again there was a team, we had a solid objective, and the plans management came up with never worked so we always ended up largely winging it and always ended up making it work in the end so some sense of satisfaction. Later in the process I started getting invited to both the planning meetings before the cutovers and the critique meetings afterwards. It was good having a chance at some input but frustrating that management would ignore the realities of the situation. For example, we had to work with other regional companies, most notably GTE or General Telephone, and we'd schedule people to do trunk testing but they'd never be there at the date and time scheduled, thus a trunk testing schedule that management always insisted we create, was always ignored in the field so seemed like such a waste of time to make it in the first place. We also knew it was a bad idea to reuse trunks to GTE as odds were good they wouldn't have anybody in the central office to make the cutover changes necessary. Often we'd go from DP signaling in the mechanical switch to MF signaling or later SS7 signaling and in spite of scheduling in advance, GTE would not do it at the scheduled time so customers would not be able to call numbers in those office until someone came in on day shift and finished the job.

Then I left the field and worked as first trunking and then a system admin in the switching control center. Worked on building a new network operations center to replace the existing systems. I know we spent around 14 million of company money on this project and yet two weeks after it was fully operational they decided to close it down and fold everything into Denver. This is the point I left the company.

Now, 23 years later I can see from the outside that the state of telephone service has continued to go to hell in a hand basket. It used to be you had defined signals for various call states. Call a number that was busy, get a busy signal. Call a number that didn't have the necessary equipment to complete the call and you'd get a re-order, what people call fast busy. Call a number that was disconnected and you'd either get a disconnect recording or what we called an intercept where it refers you to the new number.

Now, if I call a number that is disconnected, rarely will I get a recording, virtually never an intercept. Often I'll get busy 24x7, sometimes re-order. It is very frustrating, as a customer, to call someone for two weeks always getting busy eventually to find out they've died, the number was disconnected and a busy is what you get rather than a disconnect recording.

I wish it were possible to have the technical advances we have enjoyed along with the upper management that was service driven like we had when I started in 1978 and really at the local level until almost before I left. But at that point there was no support from upper management so things were going to hell despite our best efforts.

Now the land line is almost dead. I'm still using them for my business because the voice quality of most wireless networks is not so good. But recently some of the networks have provided an option for broadband high quality voice so I may go fully wireless soon as well. I really feel the phone company missed the boat in terms of capabilities they could have provided customers but now the wireless companies are starting to pick up on many of these.

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