Rerun: Telephone Talk

Telephone similar to ones in kitchen and basementIf you grew up in Cape, you were in the land of EDgewater. If you lived over in Jackson, you were a CIrcle person. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are probably also going to be surprised to see that the telephone has a round thing instead of buttons.

Here’s where you can find out a little bit about EDgewater, CIrcle, RAmond, LOcust, TUlip and GRanite.

See, back in those days, the phone company, Ma Bell, was the only game in town. You leased the phone from them (and because of that, they made it so bulletproof that telephones and cockroaches were going to be the only thing left after The Big One was dropped). You didn’t have modular jacks: the phone was wired directly to the jack and the phone company was responsible if anything went wrong with it.

Like with the other rerun posts, click on the links to see more photos and get the full stories.

Extensions cost extra

You were charged by extension, and the phone company could tell by the voltage drop how many ringing phones you had connected, and they would periodically run tests to check for bootleg equipment.

One of my buddies had an illegal extension in his house. The phone rang and a Bell tech asked how many phones he had in his house. Fibbing, he said, “Just one,” and he ran to unplug the extra one.

The phone rang again. Same tech. “You just unplugged it, didn’t you?” he said.

I acquired a couple of spare phones over the years, but I hooked up toggle switches on the ringer so they (a) wouldn’t wake up the kids and (b) wouldn’t show up to that sneaky tech.

It’s all AM and FM

Malcolm Steinhoff w buttset 08-10-2008Most of you think I was always a photographer. I spent the last 13 or so years of my newspaper career as a telecommunications manger, a job I really liked, but was totally unqualified for to start out. I got it because I was a good project manager, understood construction, got along with other departments, knew how to live within a budget and, most importantly, had a staff who really knew what they were doing to keep the phones humming.

When I was invited to speak at a telecommunications manager conference, I said that most kids want to grow up to be firemen or rocket ship drivers or other dramatic things; very few proclaim, “Mom and Dad, I want to hang a butt set off my belt.” Most of us fell into the job like I had.

My first crisis

I had Mike, my No. 2 Guy, to ease me into the job and to kick me under the table when I’d start to say something dumb in a meeting. My first big crisis occurred when we had a planned building power outage that caused the whole place to go dark. We had one critical phone switch that suddenly decided that it LIKED taking a nap and didn’t want to wake up.

About four in the morning, two hours before the call centers were supposed to open, I asked Mike the question that all techs hate to hear: “Any idea what the problem is?” The obvious, unstated answer is, “No. If I knew how to fix it, we’d have all been in bed two hours ago.”

Mike, one of the best troubleshooters I’ve ever worked with, turned to me and calmly spelled out the facts of telephonic life. In fact they apply to every aspect of real life, too.

You’re going to have to follow this link to read his words of wisdom.

 Before cell phones

Boys talking on tin can telephonesI was more comfortable with this level of technology. I mean, how can you beat unlimited voice and data plans and no need for batteries?

Dropping a dime

Pay telephone booths near Scott Quadrangle c 1967We didn’t have phones in our dorm rooms when I first moved into Scott Quad my junior year. If we wanted to call home, we had to find a phone booth that worked, a real challenge because the phone company wasn’t diligent about emptying the money out of them. When they were full, they were full.

Like Buddy Jim Stone points out, we didn’t have helicopter parents back in those days because we weren’t connected 24/7. By the time you were able to call home, you had probably already worked out the problem yourself (or had forgotten it).

If you look at a closeup photo at this link, you can see that the price of a call had just gone up from a nickel to a dime.

Car phones coming to Cape

Achievement Edition Car phones 02-26-1966The big news in 1966 was that car phones were coming to Cape.

How times have changed (I hope)

1944 Cape Telephone Book P32 Restaurants - coloredThe 1944 Cape County Telephone Directory contains a jarring classification. Follow the link to see the not-colored restaurants in Cape.

Cheating Death to make phone ring

Lester Harris SW Bell repairman over the Diversion Channel 08-18-1965I’ve mentioned Lester Harris quite a few times in this blog. He was one of those dedicated Bell techs we all took for granted.

There was a telephone cable that spanned the Diversion Channel just east of I-55. From time to time, some nimrod couldn’t resist the temptation to take a shot at it. If he was halfway accurate, phones in Scott City and the airport would go dead.

Lester would walk the roadway until he found fresh shell casings that would give him a rough idea where he was going to find the break. Then, he’d strap on his tool belt, and climbing spikes to shinny up a pole to where he could hook his cable buggy over a wire cable that supported the phone wires.

Let’s put this in perspective. Phone wire is softer and more delicate than steel cable, but what is to say that some stray bullets haven’t nicked some of the wire strands that are holding Lester 60 feet above the Diversion Channel? In a perfect world, they would catch the shooter and send him out of the cable buggy to make sure it was safe before Lester got on it.

Lester was featured in the stock car racing post the other day.

Microwave towers

ATT microwave tower - Ridge Road - Jackson 08-09-2014The horizon used to be dotted with long-haul microwave towers like this one on Ridge Road in Jackson. Fiber optic cable has made them obsolete, and many have been torn down or repurposed as cell towers.

 

 

 

I Hate Cell Phones

Cell phones in Ken Steinhoff office at PBNI 08-27-2008What did people do before they had cell phones? When I became telecommunications manager at The Post in 1991, the company had exactly six cell phones – the original Motorola brick. They were part of a pool that could be checked out as needed. I quickly discovered that four of them were on permanent assignment, so that left only two in the pool.

Not long after that, I put our business out for bid and got a sweet deal from a carrier who would give us free phones and 60 minutes of local calling for $10 a month. Departments were happy to have an electronic noose around their employees for ten bucks a month and, since 60 minutes was more than anybody would ever need for business, they were permitted a “reasonable” number of personal calls for carrying the unit and being reachable.

Fast forward to 2007

By December of 2007, those six phones had multiplied to 577 phones, which racked up 302,166 minutes of talk time a month at a cost of $31,211.84.That’s a MONTH, not a year.

In comparison, our landline phone switches in 13 locations supported about 1,500 extensions and about 425K minutes of talking. The total BellSouth and ATT landline bill ran us about $16,500 a month, half of the wireless tab.

Every year I would negotiate a better contract which would give us more minutes at a lower cost and the usage would STILL go up. At one time, as you can see on the shelf in my office, I tried to hang on to one model of every phone we used, but the models changed so quickly that I never could keep up with them. The phones were only part of the equation. If we changed carriers or the carrier offered us “new and improved” phones, then all of the batteries, chargers, cases and accessories had to be changed out, too.

The Verizon Wireless bill ran 1,844 pages long. I always wondered how many of those minutes were actually used talking to advertising customers and news sources.

Did I mention I hate cell phones?

Ken Steinhoff's Droid Incredible 07-31-2013When I was working, I carried a cell phone on each of the two carriers we used. After all, if the message is, “Nextel’s down,” how is anyone going to call you if don’t have a phone from the other guy?

After I retired, I was persuaded to switch to a “smart phone:” a Verizon HTC Droid Incredible. I have to confess that it was pretty neat: I no longer had to have a laptop on the seat next to me if I wanted to check my mail on the road or get a weather report. Having live traffic data on the Google map was even better than using my Garmin Nuvi 760 for navigation. I hardly ever use the camera feature. If I want to take a picture, I’ll use a REAL camera.

DROID!!

All was going pretty well until last year when I made the mistake of letting it do a software upgrade. As part of the start-up process, the thing hollers “DROID!!” in a loud tone that becomes increasingly annoying when it goes into a reboot cycle at 2 in the morning. Every morning. The only way short of heaving it across the room is to take the battery out and reinstall it. A factory reset solved the problem, but that meant that I had to download and re-install all my applications from scratch.

I noticed several weeks ago that the phone was getting sluggish: stuff wasn’t loading as quickly as it once did and phone calls weren’t dialing as soon as I selected a name. Then, while I was in Ohio, aps started dropping off, starting with Navigation and going from there. It was like my whole smart phone had gotten dumb or had gone on strike. Soon, about the only thing that worked was Gmail. Facebook went belly-up yesterday morning.

Andrea pulled out her magic wand

Andrea at the Verizon store just over the hill from Mother said she had a magic wand she’d wave over it. After plowing the same ground I had, she said I had two choices: start with a factory reset (remember that?) or have an accident that would cause insurance to replace the phone. I assured her that if the factory reset didn’t do the job, there would definitely be an accident that would probably involve plastering a wall.

The factory reset (knock wood) looks like it solved the problem for now. Maybe my phone is smart enough to have taken my threat seriously.

Did the World End?

PBNI Telecommunications and KLS office 07-26-08Just in case all this Mayan Calendar stuff is real, I decided not to spend a lot of time working on a post for Friday. I’ll just revisit the last time the world was supposed to end in the Year 2000.

My boss, the IT manager, saw it coming a long way off, so he started working on modifying the mainframe computer programs years before the crunch was going to hit in 2000. Suddenly, though, our corporate folks started running around with their hair on fire hiring consultants and making us fill out reams and reams of meaningless CYA forms. At one point, I can remember saying, “We have a choice: we can either be prepared for Y2K or we can fill out the forms.”

By the time 2008 came around, the stickers on the window looking into my office had faded, but they still proclaimed I was Year 2000 Compliant. Above it was a sticker with the word “SWEAT” that once had a circle around it with the international slash symbolizing NO, as in NO SWEAT. Telecom was ready.

New Year’s Eve 1999

Mike Turpie waiting for midnight Y2K in PBNI telephone switchroom 12/31/1999All of the IT staffers, including my telecom techs, had their days off cancelled as 1999 ticked down. Mike Turpie, my #2 Guy and I were going to be at the office. Telecom Tech Terry Williams was on standby with orders to have a sober New Year’s Eve in case we needed him. I thought at least ONE of us should get a good night’s sleep in case Mike and I were swatting flies through the wee hours of the morning.

PBNI Telecommunications and KLS office 07-26-08We were confident: most of our equipment had been replaced in 1998-99 with new gear that was certified to work in 2000 and beyond. People with Nortel phone switches like ours were members of a big international users group and had been comparing notes for months. The canaries in the coal mine would be the people on the other side of the globe who would see the New Year hours before we would in Florida. As the day went on, they kept checking in with AOK messages.

An hour before midnight, we dropped off the commercial power grid and switched to generator power “just in case.” I photographed Mike sitting under the clock as we got closer and closer to what I said was going to be either the most boring or the most “interesting” night of our lives.

Seconds before midnight, Mike placed a call – probably to his wife – and waited to see what happened.

Nothing unusual happened.

We turned to a carefully prepared checklist: dialed into all our remote switches; placed local and long distance calls; looked for alarms, made sure voice mail was up, confirmed that the call centers would open in the morning, and waited about half an hour to see if anything started smoking. Life was so good.

Then we looked outside

View from west PBNI 4th floor lobby 07-26-2008When I designed the switchroom, I made sure it didn’t have any windows so it would be pelican-proof in hurricanes. To see what was going on, we had to go down the hallway to the fourth-floor lobby where we could look out west over the city. When Mike and I got to the end of the hallway, the city was dark. I mean like, REALLY dark. No lights as far as we could see.

This was Not Good in capital letters. Here we were in a four-story lighted tower of light surrounded by primeval darkness. I expected angry and panicked West Palm Beacheans to charge us with torches and pitchforks at any moment.

With a bit of trepidation, I picked up my two-way radio, switched over to the newsroom channel and said, “545 to Base 30, Uhhhh, any idea what’s going on? It’s realllllly dark out there….”

“Base 30 to 545. A drunk took out a utility pole.”

And that’s the way of the world ends. Not with a bang; not with a whimper, with a drunk hitting a power pole.

Transformers, AM and FM

Looks like someone is getting a new transformer or other high-voltage piece of equipment. These photos were on the same roll as the Scott City fire truck, so they may have been taken somewhere around there, but I don’t know that for sure. Click on any photo to make it larger (but don’t look too closely. This film is scratched up pretty badly).

Telecommunications: squirting electrons

I spent the last dozen years of my newspaper career as the telecommunications manager. That sounds a little odd, but telecom is all about managing projects helping people communicate. It was pretty easy to understand: you squirt electrons in this end and they come out way over there. I had installed enough two-way radios to have that principle down pat.

Lucky for the paper, there were two guys already in the department who knew what they were doing. My Number Two guy, Mike, had two main responsibilities: keep the phones running and kick me under the table if I started to say something dumb in a meeting.

My most important lesson came one night when the building’s electrical crew had to kill all the power to make some repairs. We had a telephone switch that we called The Cash Register because it handled the classified and circulation department call centers. It was an ancient box that was so old we couldn’t get new parts for it. We had to go out on the secondary market for used and abused stuff that had a failure rate of about two out of three.

The Cash Register didn’t wake up

Old equipment runs fairly well as long as you don’t shut it down. Unfortunately, when it came time to wake up The Cash Register when the power came back on, it decided that it LIKED napping. I was there that night, not because I was of any help, but just as a sign of support to my troops. About four in the morning, two hours before the call centers were supposed to open, I asked Mike the question that all techs hate to hear: “Any idea what the problem is?” The obvious, unstated answer is, “No. If I knew how to fix it, we’d have all been in bed two hours ago.”

Mike was the calmest, best troubleshooter I’ve ever seen. The world could be blowing up around him and he’d keep working through the checklist until he found out which hamster needed kicking.

It boils down to AM and FM

He turned to me and said in quiet, measured tones and with great patience, “What we have here is AM and we need FM.”

We’re in my arena now. This is language I understand. “Amplitude Modulation instead of Frequency modulation? Those are radio terms. What does that have to do with a phone switch?”

“No,” he explained. “What we have is AM – Almost Magic. What we need is FM – Freaking Magic (except he didn’t say “freaking).”

That’s the night everything there was to know about telecommunications and most of life in general became crystal clear. It all boils down to AM and FM.

Can you keep it going another year?

The first year I was telecom manager, I went into a capital budget meeting with a request to replace The Cash Register. Management asked if I could milk one more year out of it. Mike, unfortunately, wasn’t there to kick me under the table, so I said we’d try.

The second year, I went into the hearing with the same request, only more urgently worded. When management asked the inevitable question if I could keep it running one more year if they increased my maintenance budget I was ready.

“No, in fact, you can cut the budget to 25 cents if we don’t replace The Cash Register. That’s about enough to buy one bullet. It’s gonna be a toss-up whether I use it on the switch or me if it hiccups one more time.” They gave me the quarter-million bucks I’d asked for instead of two bits, so life was good.

Staying away from sparky stuff

Our universe was divided into Low Voltage and Sparky Stuff. Management must have known about my limitations because they put me in charge of the low voltage data stuff. Oh, sure, you might get a little 90-volt buzz if you happened to be holding onto a telephone pair if someone happened to be calling it, but that’s minor compared to what the Sparky Guys worked with.

From time to time we’d have to venture into the building’s power vaults. Newspaper presses and elevators and the like take a lot of juice, so our switch gear was almost this big. When you’re dealing with stuff like this, you don’t just push a button to connect to the outside world. We’d watch the Sparky guys pull down down a big lever attached to springs like this, then they’d beat feet to get out of the vault. After a few seconds, the spring would fire the connectors into the grid  with an impressive CRACK!! and the smell of ozone. The spring-loading was to minimize the  time and distance that an arc would jump. A human couldn’t do it fast enough.

After that impressive display, we’d slink back to our safe telephone switch room to see if we could find someone who could be persuaded to hold the two ends of a phone cable while somebody in another room dialed the phone number. Hey, even low voltage guys have to have fun.