'Is anyone on the line?'

March 17, 1992

"Operator, are you there?" AT&T's announcement that it plans to replace much of its famed telephone operator services with automated voice-recognition technology is likely to leave many people wondering, but automation is a fact of life. It started in 1927, with customer-dialed calls. In 1951, the company introduced direct dialing of long-distance calls. World War II and the post-war economic surge had driven telephone usage dramatically upward, mandating changes to allow more calls to go through more quickly.

Today, with multiple long-distance carriers, automated voice-mail systems and even computerized bank reporting systems on the line, telephone users often find themselves interacting with machines rather than human operators.

What's different here is that AT&T, reading phone traffic reports that show 95 percent of all calls getting through without operator assistance, has tied voice-recognition to the switching controls. Instead of prompts to push buttons on the touch-tone keypad, the caller will be asked to say "collect," "third number," "person-to-person" or similar words. Trials in Texas showed customers found this new approach easy to use and more flexible, AT&T says, and there is no reason to doubt that. Many a voice-mail user has been frustrated by multiple push-button prompts.

AT&T's manner of announcing the new system is another matter, however. Long-distance operators work all hours for low pay -- union leaders say $200 to $522 a week, depending on seniority -- under exacting standards for courtesy, brevity and accuracy. And the operators and their fellow employees have lived through many shocks working for a company that once boasted it never laid off but has downsized aggressively since losing its market monopoly. Bringing up a new program to cut personnel during a major recession, coincidentally just before negotiations begin for a new contract with telephone unions, is not a recipe for generating smooth labor relations.

The bottom line, however, is that the voice-actuated call-assistance system is probably a good thing. It should cut costs to customers and enable AT&T to compete even more aggressively against its competitors. And automation, even the kind that startles unwary callers, has been reshaping the telephone system for a long time. "Operator, why can't I get through?" "Beep." "Oh. Bye."

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