During his 77 years, Dennis Hall has seen a lot of changes in rural communications. More than that, he’s lived those changes: He was a telephone switchboard operator in California wine country in the 1970s.
As yet another longtime feature of communications has fallen by the wayside – the 411 number for the operator and directory assistance – Hall noted just how important good communications are to people who live in small towns and isolated rural areas.
“The telephone operator was a window on the world for those people,” Hall said. “They couldn’t talk to anyone else without an operator’s help. We were also 911. A woman called and said a house was on fire, she said the fire was at Lawson’s Corner, I as an operator knew the Kenwood Fire Department is closer to her.”
Modern-day communications systems – wireless and broadband – are the same kind of lifeline, said Derrick Owens, senior vice president of government and industry affairs for Montana-based WTA: Advocates for Rural Broadband, a group that was created as Western Telecommunications Alliance in 2004 and is still a member-driven organization of communication providers.
“The pandemic highlighted that urban or rural, in government spheres and communities, broadband is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity,” Owens said in an interview. In many cases, the current-day broadband communications providers started out as small, rural telephone companies, he said.
“There are some people who say you don’t need much broadband and we don’t need to be making this investment,” he added. “But when you’re working in a global economy and you’re a small business in a rural area, you don’t want to go to a suburb or city if you can do that from home.
“If you are a rancher selling cattle, you can have a live auction from your ranch rather than drive several hundred miles to sell your cattle. It’s the same with rural medicine. From an education standpoint, a child who is a high learner but doesn’t have teachers available can take a distance learning class.”
The nation’s rural communications providers need to build a system that will be there for “at least a generation,” said Mike Romano, executive vice president of NTCA: The Rural Broadband Association.
But the work doesn’t stop with building the system, Romano added, and must include decades of maintaining the system. “The money has been put where the mouth is unlike anything before. But who’s gonna be there once the networks are built?”
The Town Operator Retired and Dials Came
AT&T, the telecommunications giant, announced late last year that 411, the operator and directory assistance service, would end around January 1, 2023. It would no longer be possible to call an operator to place a call and no longer possible to reach directory assistance for information about names and numbers. This applied to AT&T customers with digital landlines; the company had in 2021 ended operator services for wireless customers.
It’s a legitimate decision for the company to make since most people can get their questions answered through search engines accessible on their cellphones, and AT&T cited a few, like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. The company also noted that pay-per-use directory assistance and operators would still be available through “traditional home phone services.”
CNN reported that in 2019, about 71 million calls to 411 were placed each year.
The end of 411 meant the end of another means of communicating, but one with a long history of personal interaction, as Hall noted, and one that had persevered through eras of telecommunications.
Rural and small-town communications have been in flux since the middle of the 20th century. On February 1, 1958, Juanita Bowen retired from her job as a telephone operator for the small town of Cowan in southern Delaware County, Indiana. The Cowan exchange was becoming part of the Union Telephone Company – itself part of the Bell Telephone company – and residents of the area would get dial phones, which were more common in more populous areas.
Bowen had been an operator since 1946. As the town’s operator, she placed and connected calls for people within the Cowan exchange. Bowen and her family made their home in the house where the switchboard had been located since 1902, she said.
When she retired, Bowen cited to a newspaper columnist a poem called “Hello, Central,” which refers to a central telephone switchboard. The poem recounted common small-town telephone operator queries, including from a woman who asked the operator to tell callers when she would again be home. Other callers “celebrated” in the poem were those who contact the operator to ask the destination of an ambulance they saw speeding past.
It’s possible the first telephone exchange, with the first operator, opened in 1878 in New Haven, Connecticut, owned and operated by George W. Coy. A Civil War veteran, he had made a deal with Alexander Graham Bell, popularly known as the inventor of the telephone.
The History.com website recounts how women slowly replaced boys – who had been used to deliver telegrams – and how women soon dominated the ranks of operators. “In 1910, there were 88,000 female telephone operators in the United States. By 1920, there were 178,000, and by 1930, 235,000,” History.com reported.
More than 6,000 telephone systems operated in the United States after World War II, NTCA: The Rural Broadband Association said.
Telephone systems, powered by wires and operators, grew quickly in most states, but especially those with many rural people to serve. In 1907, the year Oklahoma became a state, more than 700 telephone systems operated through more than 104,000 miles of wire and more than 68,000 telephones. As Southwestern Bell began to dominate, the number of Oklahoma telephone companies shrank to 54 in 1977.
Operators used wires, plugs, and switchboards to connect calls from wired telephones, at first locally then further afield.
A few telephone operators worked past the retirement of Bowen, History.com said. More than 70,000 were working in 2021, including telephone operators and switchboard operators for answering services.
One of them was Dennis Hall.
‘No Sense of Community’
When the Museum of Sonoma County in California included a telephone switchboard in an exhibit of large-scale devices in June 2021, exhibit curator Eric Stanley, in an interview with the Daily Yonder, said one visitor to the exhibit knew a lot about telephone switchboard systems.
That visitor was Hall, who said in interviews for this article that he worked telephone switchboards in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, California, in the 1970s.
“Being a rural area, we had a lot of farmers,” Hall said, adding that a single line might connect three farms. “That was called a farmer’s line.”
“Someone would dial the operator and tell them they wanted Farmer Jones. All three lines could ring, but the operator would make the (ring) different. Farmer Jones would be two shorts and a long, but inevitably all three would pick it up.”
How has the telephone experience changed for rural customers?
“The sense of community is severely diminished. There’s not really any sense of community.”
Hall said he was working on February 4, 1974, when newspaper heiress and wanted fugitive Patty Hearst was captured.
“The board lit up,” he said. “You wanted to know something, you dialed 0.”
Just as the Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 helped advance connectivity to areas rural and urban, opportunities and challenges arise, Owens said.
“As you move to higher and higher broadband speed, it means fewer places in rural areas don’t have that level of service. That’s why the last Congress passed $65 billion in the last infrastructure package for building out broadband.”
Telephone users are happy to not share “farmer lines” or “party lines,” another former service that meant more than one house would be on a line, Hall agreed. And he noted that it’s possible to mourn the loss of the one-time telephone community and appreciate the improvements.
Rural broadband providers are often the same companies that pioneered those early lines, Romano said.
“You can go back 100 years, where people were doing copper wire, along roads. Telephone service to dial-up to DSL to cable modems to now, largely, fiber optic. This is an infrastructure asset.”
Keith Roysdon is a lifelong writer who worked for Indiana newspapers for 40 years. A Tennessee resident, he writes for a variety of publications. His third co-authored true crime book, “The Westside Park Murders,” won first place for Nonfiction Book in 2021 from Indiana Society of Professional Journalists. He writes fiction and his Tennessee-set crime novel “Seven Angels” won the 2021 Hugh Holton Award for Best Unpublished Novel from Mystery Writers of America Midwest.