"Z" versus AT&T
An old saying says that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." This is particularly true when numbers and statistics are used to try obscure fundamental issues, especially when the *real* data is unavailable to the public.
About 1000 years ago (well, it feels that way, but it was actually back in the early '70s or so), I was sitting one day in a conference room at the L.A. offices of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). I must have been somewhere around 20 years old at the time.
With me were two friends (both just a little bit older). AT&T was attempting to shut down our free telephone entertainment service -- the last listing in the Los Angeles telephone directories -- ZZZZZZ.
The history of Z, how it came to be and became widely known internationally is another story, but the bottom line is that most of the time it consisted of a single phone line that played a different funny, homemade recording to each caller. As it evolved we had it sounding pretty professional, and I learned voice-over and audio editing (razor blade, splicing tape, and Editall block at that point) techniques back then that would turn out to be fairly useful later on.
It did not make any money. It wasn't meant to. It was just for fun.
After an initial year or so on a step-by-step exchange, we moved it to a local #5 Crossbar exchange. It got a lot of calls. During the day there was usually only a gap of a couple of seconds before the next call would hit the line and start to ring in. During the wee hours of the night it was calmer, but with so much international interest due to various media reports and callers in the "phone phreak" community, it was rarely silent.
AT&T hated it. Though they never admitted this outright to the CPUC, later on, one factor that must have driven them crazy was the $1500 or more of third party billings on the line every month (somewhere I still probably have one of those phone bills). It may seem inconceivable now to younger readers, but back then AT&T operators would happily bill long distance calls to almost any number that you specified. In theory they were supposed to first get permission from the party at the billing number, but in practice if they couldn't reach that party, they'd put the call through. And Z was virtually always busy.
So every month, a call had to be made to Pacific Bell to have them remove the erroneous charges that resulted from their billing policy. "OK, please subtract $1,493.03 from your bill -- that leaves an amount due of $9.21." Month after month.
Finally AT&T had enough. Much like a modern ISP claiming that a P2P or other server user was disrupting operations, AT&T claimed that Z was disrupting Long Lines operations across the country, saturating 4E Toll switches around the nation, and so on. They demanded that we obtain A Whole Bunch of Lines in Rotary to "solve" the problem, something that was economically impossible for us of course. Remember, this was a free entertainment line, not a business. If we refused to get all of the additional lines, AT&T said that they'd shut
We did refuse. But we also took every administrative step possible to prevent their threatened shutdown of Z, and the matter eventually escalated to the CPUC. And that led to my sitting on a hard wooden chair up in a downtown L.A. office building that day, for an informal hearing with a CPUC official and my two buddies, vs. (if memory serves) no less than four AT&T officials, including at least one AT&T lawyer.
They sat across the conference table from we three "kids" and were practically laughing out loud at us -- at least at the start.
They had brought along the Ma Bell equivalent of Arlo Guthrie's "27 8x10 color glossy photos with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one to be used as evidence against us" from "Alice's Restaurant."
In this case, it was a beautifully illustrated and bound report purporting to show how Z was massively interfering with other AT&T customers. They had pie charts and graphs and it was very professional, as you'd expect.
So while they made their spiel to the CPUC official, I quickly browsed through their report, which I hadn't seen before, naturally.
I saw a fallacy in their claimed reasoning almost immediately. They asserted that we were saturating toll switches in distant locations, but their proposed solution to immediately solve this problem was our obtaining a large bank of expensive local rotary lines.
But adding more local terminations wouldn't reduce the traffic at the toll switches per se, it would only mean more completed calls vs. busy calls. That was the key. They weren't really so concerned about supposed congestion affecting other customers, they were concerned about the "lost" revenue that busy calls represented as opposed to answered calls, given the large volume of long distance calls that Z received.
I plopped the AT&T report onto the table and explained my reasoning on this point to the meeting. The AT&T guys looked at each other in concern and started hemming and hawing and protesting to the CPUC official that I was wrong. After all, I was just a young punk kid, how dare I question AT&T's veracity in this matter?
The CPUC official didn't buy AT&T's protests. She immediately ruled that AT&T had not proven their case. We headed back to West L.A.
ZZZZZZ continued for a while largely unchanged, though we eventually drifted away from the project and it ultimately died a quiet and natural death -- for us, anyway. But for many, many years afterwards, even after the 213 area code began to split, AT&T could not effectively reassign that number. Anybody unlucky enough to get it would immediately be bombarded with calls from all over the world, and AT&T would have to change their number immediately.
So that's the story of my first experience dealing with Official Big Telecom.
The question is, when it comes to the dynamic between subscribers and the dominant telecom firms today, how much has really changed since then?
Image licensed for unrestricted use courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.Tweet