Tuesday, October 10, 2006

How expensive was long-distance, back when our parents used to complain about it?

Who's asking: Bill Walsh

An entire generation is growing up unaware that it used to cost a lot of money to make a long-distance phone call, and that it used to cost more money to call from, say, New York to California than from New York to New Jersey.

So how much did it really cost? I'd meant to ask Dad, when I saw him on Saturday, how much it cost him to call New York from Hong Kong after Kathy and I were born (he was on a ship in the South China Sea when we were born, and didn't even know we were twins until the ship arrived in Hong Kong a day or two later). Dad, if you remember, post it in the comments section.

What we consider "long distance" has changed dramatically over the past century. In 1915, it was a long-distance call from Atlanta, GA to Forest Park, GA, about 12 miles away. A five-minute phone call cost 15 cents, the equivalent of $287.25 in today's currency.

In constant 1996 currency, a three-minute phone call from London to New York cost £486.98 in 1927, £62.80 in 1945, £12.46 in 1970 and 52 pence in 1996.

It wasn't possible to call from New York to California until 1915, and completing a phone call required connections from one station to another (the "station to station" calls). A network of physical phone cables connected one city to another, and operators at each station connected calls by hand. Connections faded out and got lost, and depending on how far away you were calling, you might have to schedule a phone call in advance, or place the call and then wait several minutes for the operator to call you back with a connection.

Direct long-distance dialing in the U.S. began in 1951, with the introduction of area codes. The U.S. originally had 90 area codes; now it has more than 250. Being able to dial person-to-person was a major advance, but calls were still priced according to the distance between callers. Bell Telephone was a natural monopoly whose rates were governed by a federal commission; an anti-trust judge broke the monopoly in 1984, and rates were deregulated. The advent of wireless technology made the old telephone cable networks obsolete, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I now pay one flat rate that includes unlimited long distance within the United States. Cell phones don't distinguish between local and long-distance calls, and Claire's Canadian cell phone is on a program that doesn't distinguish between calls in or to the U.S. or Canada.

Matthew and Henry have just memorized their phone number, which impressed me very much this weekend.

"Somebody doesn't have a phone number," Henry told me, after he rattled off his number.

"Who doesn't have a phone number?" I asked.

"Dogs," he said. "Dogs don't have phones. Only people do."

That explains why Dizzy is so lousy with messages...


JIM LAMB said...

If you want telephone stories I have alot. As you know, my Father worked for AT&T and New York Telephone Company for 50 years.

He often complained about government regulation of the telephone service. It was often heavy handed and counter productive. The breakup of AT&T was the price of getting rid of the regulation.

To be brief, home telephone service was considered a luxury for the upper middle class until after WW II. Lomg distance calls to California during the Korean War were about $10 for three minutes with per minute charges after that. Many of our neighbors would complain when they had to call their family members on the coast. When I was in college AT&T made the home cost of a three minute call to CA $3 for the first three minutes. Business accounts always had different rates.

When you were born, a short (15 min.) call from Hong Kong cost about $75. That was when my total pay was somewhere less than $400 per month. I called collect and your grandfather got the bill. He didn't ask for reimbusement. That wasn't all. The Chicom government was not happy with the British presnce in Hong Kong, so they wouldn't let them lay a cable. That made it necessary to wait in the main Post Office in Hong Kong for hours for a kind of clear HF connection.

The most expensive call I can remember was from Palermo in Sicily to Norfolk after your Aunt Rita's funeral. That was in 1978 I think. I had to make a call through an Italian Post Office Employee who didn't or wouldn't speak English. The first connection was a wrong number that I couldn't get credit for. It was strictly cash. The Lire was about 2000 to the dollar and I started out with fistsful of money. I had to send back to the ship for more cash twice. The last time I could only get US$s from the purser and then the Italian skimmed some ( a lot) off the exchange rate for himself. The total cost was about $150.

What a change! I am not entirely sure that a world where every five year old has their own cell phone is a net improvement.

Incidently, I was told that the roaming charges in the Bahamas would be $.49 a minute, Jamaica $.99 and even higher in Canada if I wanted to use my US phone.

I could write on this subject all day, but that's enough for today.

Love, Dad

AnswerGirl said...

Once again, Answer Girl reveals the secret of her success, which is that one of her relatives always has the answer... thanks!

Anonymous said...

excellent question

Anonymous said...

It used to cost me a boat load to call your sister whilst she was a Freshman at Va. Tech....my dad would Always bring in the bill shaking his head. I think the most I paid one month was around $200.00.....back in 1987, as an 18 year old.....that sucked completely.

Mark Dunn

AnswerGirl said...

Yeah, I think I had a $600 phone bill one month my first year out of college, when my then-boyfriend was living in Michigan and I was still in DC.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that our kids will NEVER relate to this expenditure.

Tell your pop to allow " non bloggers " to comment on his posts.

Cheers !
Mark Dunn

JJ said...

The thing I remember most about the old Ma Bell days was how your figer hurt after dialing a long distance number on an actual dial phone.

Let us all take a moment of silence in praise of whoever dreamt up touch tone.