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WiWPrivate Line Back Issues

private line magazine and e-zine back issue text archive. Caution when using any material here which is now very much dated.

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VI. Adventures in Semi-rural telephony -- Isleton telephone service by Tom Farley

A. Introduction

B. Isleton looses long distance for a day

C. Life under GTD5 (Revised)

D. Free payphone calling in the 916

E. Fun with AT&T

Isleton phone service is frustrating, sometimes fun and always expensive, since everything out of here is a toll call. Get out a California map to follow along. General Telephone, which later became GTE, provided phone service to Isleton as well as southwestern Sacramento county for decades. They sold this territory to Citizen's Telecom two years ago. You have therefore, an infrastructure built by one large, impersonal, out of state firm, maintained by a smaller, impersonal, out of state firm.

Only four thousand people live year round in the Delta, consequently, our local phone book's white pages take up just 38 pages and the yellow pages take less than a hundred. That's in a 5 inch by 7 inch phone book, by the way, something that looks like a small pamphlet. People here exchange the last four digits of their telephone numbers. You know an outsider or newcomer if they give you their complete number.

Let's look at the whole area before we look at Isleton. Here are the cities served along with their prefixes in the 916 area code:

Elk Grove 682-687 Freeport 665 Clarksburg 744 Hood 775 Courtland 775 Locke 776 Walnut Grove 776 Ryde 776 Isleton 777

I won't discuss Elk Grove much since it falls outside of the Delta. I will say, though, that their phone book still contains an interesting, if grim, two page evacuation plan for the now defunct Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant. Moving into the Delta, Freeport, Clarksburg, Hood and Courtland long distance traffic seems bundled together and sent to Citizen's toll center in Elk Grove, probably by microwave link from the Courtland switching office. Isleton, Ryde, Walnut Grove and Locke traffic, on the other hand, are sent by fiber optic cable to Elk Grove by way of Walnut Grove. Much of that cable crosses or lies underneath the Sacramento River. These towns are connected in series to the cable with no backup or alternative cable routing in case of emergency. This poor arrangement shut down Isleton toll traffic on March 14, 1996 when the fiber optic cable failed.

B. Isleton looses long distance for a day

I woke up that Thursday to find the power out. No big deal, since Isleton seems like a low priority to Pacific Gas and Electric. Most residents keep candles, flashlights and extra ice to cope with these outages. You light a candle, throw anything that can spoil into the freezer section and wait. The big problem was my inability to call PG&E to report the outage. Dialing their 800 number only resulted in a fast busy signal (reorder) or a message saying that all circuits were busy. This changed later to a recording stating that technical problems were preventing the call from being completed. 'O' was dead. '411' and '611' (Repair) and '911' were dead. All 800 and 900 and 700 numbers were dead. All long distance was gone. Everything out of Isleton's 777 prefix was dead.

Isleton's exchange serves this 850 person town, the surrounding farm country and a dozen marinas within an eight mile circle. We were all cut off, with a few dozen cellular circuits to handle outbound traffic. Not many people have cellular, though, and it wasn't surprising once I managed to call in PG&E had no reports from the public about the power outage. And while the power came back on after two hours, it wasn't until 17 hours later that we got long distance service back up.

Citizen's Telecom told me later that a fiber optic cable on the bottom of the river failed internally. The core broke down simultaneously along multiple points, although their exact locations weren't known. The telco didn't know what caused the breaks, although a ship anchor dragging the cable then releasing it may have damaged it this fashion. In any case, Citizens had no way to connect the Isleton exchange with the outside world since there was no emergency routing. Working on more improvisation than planning, Citizens got some circuits going by midnight by patching into the old copper cable still lying next to the fiber optic one. GTE had disconnected the cable years ago but hadn't removed it. Since light waves don't travel very well over copper, Citizen's labored throughout the day to attach the necessary opto-electronics on either side of the suspected break to convert the light waves to electrical signals the copper could pass. They have since replaced the affected cable.

C. Life Under GTD-5 (Revised)

Citizens later maintained that '911' (emergency) calls were routed to the Isleton police department, however, I know I called '911' at 4:30 p.m. and my call was not completed. Interestingly, calls that shouldn't rely on distant network resources, like ringback, the ANAC number and the Proctor Test Set number were cutoff as well. I thought those numbers would be based at the local switch, an aging GTD-5, more formally called a GTD-5 EAX. (General Telephone and Dynamics-Electric Automatic Exchange?)

The leading article on the GTD-5, at least in the underground press, is an article by Zaphraud in the Summer, 1994 _2600_. The writer contends that the GTD-5 exists as software only, working under an existing switch like a DMS-100. Not so. The GTD-5 is a real switch, an early digital one, with its own software. I understand there is also a military version of the software and that the first GTD-5 was cut over in Banning, twenty miles west of Palm Springs on June 26, 1982. I don't have many problems with the beast, although the ringing generator sounds in the background on most calls. Repair says little can be done about that.

Until three weeks ago there used to be a suite of services nestled in the 11X dialing area. Dialing 114 got the Automatic Number Announcement Circuit, 117 got the payphone proctor test set and 119 got the phone to ring after you went back on hook. Among other things. The switch's software was upgraded around the first of August and these services have moved. I pay on a per-call basis here so I won't be doing much scanning to find them. The telco appears to be installing some new hardware and software to enable caller I.D. delivery, something that is months away for this area. This may be a logical time for them to do other upgrades. The most devastating result of these changes, though, is a shutting down, for the most part, of free payphone calling in the 916.

NB: I wrote the above years ago when I was poorly informed. Click here for much more accurate information on the GTD-5.

D. Free payphone calling in the 916

I noticed several years ago, when visiting Isleton, that calls would connect anywhere in the 916 if you dialed them in a certain way. For example, 1-916-444-5555 would connect but dialing 916- 444-5555 or 4444-5555 would call up the Automated Coin Toll Service. When GTE held the territory you got only ten seconds of talk time until you were cut off. Pretty cool but somewhat worthless except for short messages. Two years ago, when Citizens took over, I felt sure the game was over. They would have reviewed operations and shut down my little bit of fun.

Much to my amazement, though, the ten second restriction was lifted and unlimited calls were allowed! I made many free calls to family and friends in Sacramento over the last year from a Citizens payphone tied to the Isleton exchange. The resort phones were always the most fun. There were often portable chairs next to them. You could sit down, watch the scene and talk. And talk. And talk. I think my record was a forty-five minute conversation at the B&W Marina. This was a lifesaver with calls so outrageously expensive.

As of early August, though, things have changed. I remember the horror of hearing a message left one night by a Citizens' employee, informing me of "upgrades to our switch" and to "call if you have any problems." Yeah, right. My friend Vamprella and I rushed to the nearest payphone to see if the free phone still worked. She called her voice mail in Sacramento and got connected. But the DTMF keypad was disabled so she needed a tone dialer to retrieve her messages. My favorite numbers in Davis and Sacramento, by comparison, no longer work and now call up the ACTS. Hmm. So certain prefixes still connect a call and others don't. I have a lot of experimenting to do in Isleton and I'll let you know what happens.

E. Fun with AT&T

My phone number was hacked big time on March 26, 1996. Starting at about 4:00 p.m. and continuing until 7:00 p.m., someone successfully charged 55 one minute calls to my number, using the old third party billing routine. Only three calls were blocked. The oldest scam in the book, third party billing is, apparently, as easy as calling the the operator and asking them to bill your call to someone else's phone number. I wasn't too upset by the hack since I would never pay for the calls, however, I was suprised by the events and explanations that followed.

The first surprise was not being able to get ahold of AT&T security at night. They left a message on my answering machine, saying that someone was billing to my number exessively and that they had put a 90 day block on my number to prevent any more third party billing. Okay. They said to call if I had any questions. AT&T doesn't seem to answer their phones at midnight, though, which is when I got home, got the messages and made my call. I made at least three calls, waiting for ten minutes or so at a time, only to have my call unanwered. Not even an answering machine. No one picked up the phone, and here we are talking about the world's largest telecommunication company. This might be a good test for all you business owners out there -- try calling up your long distance carrier's security at midnight -- see if anyone answers. No problem with checking, is there?.

What was more surprising, however, was the story I got from security when I called the next morning. AT&T says that even to this day, most third party billing calls will be connected, unless there is a third party block in place already. No one will call verify, they'll just place it through, as "a convenience to our customers". So, considering how easy this is to do, I have some advice. If you don't need third party billing, then make sure there is a block on it from your LD company and your local telco. Call both and insist on it. You won't have to deal with the nonsense I detail now.

The next stop was to deal with billing. They seemed confused. Turns out that Citizens' Telecom doesn't share (or isn't able to) real time billing information with AT&T. That means that AT&T can't pop up my record on their screens. They know I'm an AT&T customer but that's about it. They told me the calls would be taken off and to call them later when I actually got my bill. That bill still had the calls, of course, so I called AT&T again. They told me to make copies of the bill and send them in! Amazing. So I mailed off copies to someplace in Georgia and didn't hear from them again for weeks. I called again and they confessed they couldn't find my copies but would I be so kind as to fax another copy? No 800 fax number to do that and no way for me to be credited for making the call. Ridiculous. I faxed them over and they said they'd adjust things. Let me wrap this up without getting more negative.

Bottom line is that AT&T did credit me for the $129 worth of calls. I switched to MCI because of this problem. MCI as well as others bills separately for long distance. They can call my account up in real time and discuss any problems with my billing. MCI also included a personal 800 number free of charge when I signed up. Kind of nice. Enjoyable as that was, I am back with AT&T. Two months after this incident they mistakenly deducted the $129 again, so I was money ahead. Then came a $70 check to get me to sign back up. I will go back to MCI as soon as there is another problem but I simply couldn't refuse $200.

Got an interesting story? Send it in and I'll publish it here. I'm especially interested in independent telephone stories and information from Canada and overseas . . .

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VII. History -- - The Bell System's worst single service disaster

This excerpt is from John Brooks _Telephone_, long out of print. It details how in 1975 a 4,000 man Bell System task force restored service to 170,000 phones knocked out by fire at the 13th Ave. and Second Street switching office in New York City. . .

"The most local and transient, but not the least dramatic, of these was a fire of unknown origin that swept through a switching center at Second Avenue and Thirteenth Street in lower Manhattan on February 27, 1975, causing the worst single service disaster ever suffered by any single Bell operating company. Starting around midnight in the cable vault under the eleven-story building's basement, the fire spread rapidly upward. Alert work by New York City firemen confined it to the lower floors and saved the building itself from destruction, but dense smoke from burning cable insulation suffused the unburdened parts of the building and virtually all the equipment in it was put out of service. By afternoon, when the fire was finally declared under control -- with no loss of life to either firemen or telephone people-- twelve Manhattan telephone exchanges, embracing three hundred city blocks and 104,00 subscriber lines serving 170,000 telephones, were out of service, and among the institutions bereft of working telephones were six hospitals and medical centers, eleven firehouses, three post offices, one police precinct, nine public schools, and three higher education institutions, including New York University.

Before fireman had given telephone repairmen the O.K. to enter the building, the Bell System had begun one of the typical crisis mobilizations of which it is justly proud -- indeed, the largest such mobilization ever. New York Telephone, AT&T Long Lines, Western Electric, and Bell Labs contingents converged on the area, and a crisis headquarters -- inevitably called a war room -- was established in a rented storefront on Fourteenth Street, under the immediate direction of Lee Oberst, New York City area vice- president of New York Telephone. (Oberst, the type-cast hero for such and operation, was a South Bronx-born man of 54 who had started his Bell System career in 1946 as a twenty-eight dollar a week switchman.) Within twenty-four hours, emergency telephone service had been restored to the medical, police and fire facilities affected, and in hardly more time the task force assessing damage and beginning to restore service had reached its peak strength of four thousand, working around the the clock in twelve hour shifts of two thousand each. Western Electric officials were ordered to commandeer or quickly manufacture huge quantities or replacement equipment; shipments by air began the day after the fire, and eventually the amount of equipment shipped in amounted to three thousand tons.

The work to be done in the damaged building varied all the way from installing new ESS equipment and writing computer programs for it to cleaning smoke-damaged relays with toothbrushes and Q- tips. A couple of happy circumstances speeded the work along. One of these was the fact that the the third floor of the burned building happened to be standing vacant at the time, thus providing space for the rapid installation of an entirely new main frame for handling trunk calls, which was shipped by cargo jet on February 28 from Western Electric's Hawthorne works. Another was the convenient availability for emergency use of excess switching capacity, from the ESS installations at Seventh Avenue and Eighteenth Street and at New York Telephone headquarters at Sixth and Forty-second. Such capacity could temporarily accommodate 28,000 of the 104,000 served lines.

"The miracle on Fourteenth Street," Oberst kept calling it -- a bit melodramatically, and it appeared for a time, overoptimistically. On March 11, New York Telephone announced plans to restore service to all ordinary telephone subscribers on March 16. As that date approached, it developed that water used in the fire-fighting operation had damaged many of the cables entering the building and that the miracle would be postponed. Except for a few stray problem lines, service was restored just before midnight on March 21 -- twenty two days after the disaster, instead of the year or more that would have been required under normal conditions. The restoration was ceremoniously marked by a call from William Ellinghaus, New York Telephone's president, to Mayor Beame of New York at the mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion. The cost of the job, still not precisely calculated six months later, had been about ninety million dollars, of which almost all was covered by insurance, so the disaster cost no increase in rates to subscribers or lost profits to stockholders. It remains a fair question whether New York Telephone had been prudent, in the most telephone-dependent area in the country, to house twelve exchanges and five toll switching machines in a single building. (2)

(2) _New York Times_, February 28, March 13, March 24, March 30, 1975; AT&T Share Owners Newsletter, First Quarter 1975.

Every American telephone historian owns a copy of Telephone: The First Hundred Years, by John Brooks One of two or three essential books on the Bell System. I used it frequently to write my telephone history series. Shouldn't cost more than eight or nine dollars in paperback. Great reading.

 

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VIII. _private line_ General information

_private line_ in hardcopy was a "journal of inquiry into the telephone system." It presented an alternative, non-corporate point of view which focused on explaining technology to beginners. The magazine was consecutively paged, indexed and illustrated. Back issues are five dollars apiece. Issues 5 through 10 are in plentiful supply, issues 1-4 will not be in stock until the first week or so of September. The best way to get an idea what the magazine was about is to check out the e-text version of the back issues. Web, gopher or FTP over to:

etext.archive.umich.edu /pub/Zines/PrivateLine

Another useful URL is:

gopher://gopher.etext.org:70/11/Zines/PrivateLine

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IX. The last word: Vamprella's Hacker Manifesto

Do you remember the America of Mom and Apple Pie? Do you remember the America that lead the world in Technology? Do you remember when you were proud to be an American? That America is still alive, alive in the heart of hackers.

Hackers do not desire money. Hackers desire testing their intelligence and the intelligence of others. Criminals pose as hackers since the true hacker is NOT a criminal. Curiosity and knowledge are the hacker's motivation.

We create products to make our lives easier. We create computer software to make our jobs simpler. We create security to make America safer. Hackers do not destroy, hackers create. Has the person sitting next to you "hacked" or improved a part of your life? Do you know a person that has above-average intelligence? These people make things better for others. These people are hackers.

Have you ever thought of ideas to improve the system at home, at work, for yourself, or for others? Then you, my friend, are a hacker. Be proud to be an American, be proud to be a hacker.

-vamprella-

http://www.vamprella.com

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