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Does Operator Assistance Still Exist?

I did an interesting experiment the other day–I tried dialing 0 for a number of phones. What does dialing 0 do? In the United States and Canada, dialing zero was how you reached the operator. You needed the operator to even make local calls at first, but as the equipment became more sophisticated and automated, the operator was needed less and less.

This video from an era gone past explains how operators helped route calls between different cities. Seems quaint today, of course.

In addition to routing long distance calls, operators also were the de-facto emergency service number. You could call the operator and get connected with the local police and fire department as necessary. The operator was used for this function well into the 1980s, in some locations, given that 911 service wasn’t widely available. It still isn’t available in some locations.

Back to my experiment with dialing zero. I have two mobile phones–one with AT&T, one with T-Mobile–and I have a landline with CenturyTel. Surprisingly, I was able to reach an operator on all of these phones. I did notice that some of the Nokia phones blocked dialing zero. My Nokia N95 and my Nokia N73–regardless of SIM–did not allow dialing of the operator. Not quite sure why, but some of my other Nokia handsets were able to do this without a problem.

CenturyTel’s operator was hidden behind a phone tree, mostly because you got the option of English or Spanish. AT&T’s operator gave me, predicably, an AT&T message. Dialing zero only let you dial a collect call. Dialing zero-zero was necessary to reach a real operator.

On T-Mobile, calling the operator was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Why? Because I got a Verizon operator–right away, even. I asked the operator what services they provide, and it still sounds like the same ones: call completion, collect calls, and emergency services.

I guess you still can get an operator, and you still can get service. They don’t even advertise the service anymore. Try finding anything on CenturyTel, T-Mobile, or AT&T website about operator service and you simply won’t find it. But by golly, it’s still there.


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Parent, Writer, Podcaster, Coffee Achiever, VoIP/Telco Curious, C-List Information Security Celebrity, and Mobile Phone Connoisseur residing in Gig Harbor WA US. Sometimes NSFW, always a 49ers fan.