In telecommunications, a long-distance call or trunk call is a telephone call made outside a defined local area, usually to another city. These calls are typically characterized by their higher per-minute cost ("national rate" or "overseas rate" instead of local rate), by terminating at a destination served by a different local telephone exchange or by being carried over intercity trunks or interexchange carriers instead of a direct line between two adjacent exchanges. A long-distance call is not necessarily synonymous with a call to another telephone area code.
Before direct distance dial (first introduced in a handful of markets in 1951), all long-distance calls were operator assisted by a special long-distance operator even in exchanges where calls within the local exchange were direct dial. Completion of intercity calls was time-consuming and costly as each call was handled by multiple operators in multiple cities. Record keeping was also more complex, as the time, length and duration of every toll call had to be manually recorded for billing purposes.
In some countries (such as Canada and the US) long-distance rates were historically kept artificially high to subsidise unprofitable flat-rate local residential services. Intense competition between long-distance phone companies narrowed these gaps significantly in most developed nations in the late 20th century, although international calls to some countries continue to carry artificially high tolls as governments in those nations use them as a lucrative source of tax revenue.
In 1892, AT&T built an interconnected long-distance telephone network, which reached from New York to Chicago, the technological limit for non-amplified wiring. Users often did not use their own phone for such connections, but made an appointment to use a special long-distance telephone booth or "silence cabinet" equipped with 4-wire telephones and other advanced technology. The invention of loading coils extended the range to Denver in 1911, again reaching a technological limit. A major research venture and contest led to the development of the audion—originally invented by Lee De Forest and greatly improved by others in the years between 1907 and 1914—which provided the means for telephone signals to reach from coast to coast. Such transcontinental calling was made possible in 1914 but was not showcased until early 1915, as a promotion for the upcoming Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in the spring of the same year.
On January 25, 1915, Alexander Graham Bell ceremonially sent the first transcontinental telephone call from 15 Dey Street in New York City, which was received by his former assistant Thomas A. Watson at 333 Grant Avenue in San Francisco. This process, nevertheless, involved five intermediary telephone operators and took 23 minutes to connect by manually patching in the route of the call.
"On October 9, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson talked by telephone to each other over a two-mile (3 km) wire stretched between Cambridge and Boston. It was the first wire conversation ever held. Yesterday afternoon the same two men talked by telephone to each other over a 3,400-mile (5,500 km) wire between New York and San Francisco. Dr. Bell, the veteran inventor of the telephone, was in New York, and Mr. Watson, his former associate, was on the other side of the continent. They heard each other much more distinctly than they did in their first talk thirty-eight years ago."
On November 11, 1951, the first direct dial long-distance telephone call in North America was placed from Mayor M. Leslie Denning of Englewood, New Jersey to Mayor Frank Osborne of Alameda, California via AT&T's Bell System. The ten digit call (seven digits plus a three-digit area code) was connected automatically within 18 seconds.
The first subscriber trunk dialling in the United Kingdom was deployed December 5, 1958 with Elizabeth II placing a call from Bristol to Edinburgh. International Direct Dialling from London to Paris was first offered in March 1963. Transatlantic International Direct Dialing between New York (212, 718 and 914 area codes) and London (01 STD code) was introduced in 1970, with service extended to the whole of the USA and the 6 largest UK cities in 1971.
Various schemes were devised to allow large organisations to automatically accept collect calls, where the recipient pays long-distance charges for any call from a predefined area. A Zenith number in the late 1950s required an operator manually determine the destination number from a printed list; the 1967 Wide Area Telephone Service introduced the first automated toll-free telephone numbers, terminated on special fixed-rate trunks. By the 1980s, computerisation of the system allowed British Telecom "Linkline" 0800 freephone numbers and AT&T +1-800- toll-free numbers to be controlled by a database and terminated virtually anywhere with each inbound call itemised and billed individually. This smart network was further refined to provide toll-free number portability in the 1990s.
Until the early 1980s a called party could instantly recognize an incoming long-distance call by its hiss or low level, due to the inherent signal loss and introduction of noise. The deployment of digital technologies such as pulse-code modulation and T-carrier circuits in the 1970s and 1980s let long-distance calls match the high voice quality of local calls.
Improvements in switching technology, the deployment of high-capacity optical fibre and an increase in competition substantially lowered long-distance rates at the end of the 20th century. Using the Internet, the distinction between local and long-distance communication is fading to the point where an Internet call from the United States to Beijing carries a lower wholesale cost than a domestic landline call to a rural independent in small-town Iowa.
Dramatization of a long distance call circa 1949
In this excerpt from the radio series Dragnet, Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb) places a person-to-person long-distance call to a number on a manual switchboard in Fountain Green, Utah — a town of several hundred people served by an independent telephone company. In the call, Friday calls a long-distance operator in Los Angeles and gives the name and number of the called party. The operator then calls a rate operator to get the route and rate. The rate operator responds that the call should be routed through Salt Lake City and Mount Pleasant, Utah and the rate-step for the call is 140 (the long distance operator would mark her ticket with that rate-step, and could use it to quote the rate from her rate table, in terms of the first three minutes and each additional minute, if the caller requested the price).
The Los Angeles operator then calls the Salt Lake City operator and asks for Mount Pleasant; the Salt Lake operator rings Mount Pleasant, and the Los Angeles operator asks the Mount Pleasant operator for Fountain Green. The Mount Pleasant operator next rings Fountain Green, and the Los Angeles operator gives the Fountain Green operator the number and name of the called party in Fountain Green. The Fountain Green operator then rings the number, "14R2", a party line where a specific ringing pattern summons the second subscriber on the shared line. A man answers; the Los Angeles operator asks for the called party and states that Los Angeles is calling.
This dramatization (and others like it) illustrates the cumbersome, costly and time-consuming process needed for long-distance calling before direct distance dialing was available. Local calls within Los Angeles had long been direct dial, but a long distance call to a tiny town in a distant state was a slow, complex manual effort. The caller would dial the long-distance operator (typically ‘112’ in large Bell System cities of that era; “0” was for local assistance) and provide the destination city name and called number as well as their own number for billing purposes (there was no automatic number identification). Before the era of operator distance dialing, which began in the late 1940s, an operator would ring back the original caller several minutes later to announce the call was ready instead of having them remain on the line.
Once operator distance dialing was implemented, the operator would have received a numerical routing from the rate and route operator, such as “Mark: Other Place. Route: A ringdown. Numbers: 801 plus 073 plus 181. Operators 801 plus 073 plus.” This routing would allow the Los Angeles operator to dial directly to the Mount Pleasant operator’s switchboard, via a special trunk designated for incoming calls to ringdown points (places with manual service whose connection to the national network was via a larger point).
Routings were important during the 1950s and 1960s, when many medium and smaller cities had automatic service, but were not yet reachable by the growing numbers of people in cities with direct dialing. For example, if Fountain Green had locally-dialable 4 digit numbers, an operator could usually dial the call after getting the routing. Rate and Route would quote “Numbers 801 plus 833 plus 4D. Operators 801 plus 073 plus.” The operator could add 833, to the local four digit number, which in a few years, would become the seven digit number for the residents.
The definition of "local" or "long distance" calling (and the corresponding pricing) is largely a regulatory construct, by which every point outside an arbitrary group of exchange boundaries is charged at a higher "trunk call" or "toll call" rate. The charges often do not correlate directly to either straight-line distance or network topology; two exchanges 75 km apart may be local in some cases, while in other cases an adjacent pair of exchanges (or even two different exchange prefixes on the same physical switch) may arbitrarily be long-distance.
In Canada, local calls from landline telephones are flat-rated even in the largest cities (unlike the United States, which has metered service in a few of the largest markets). Local telephone numbers were lengthened to a standard seven digits in all of the largest markets in 1958 to accommodate US-style direct-dial equipment (Montréal and Toronto previously had 2L+4N six-digit local calling, smaller communities had four or five digits).
Long distance calling from landlines was opened to competition in the early 1990s and the use of long distance revenue to subsidise local service phased out a few years later. It is not possible for mobile telephone subscribers or coin-paid telephone users to select a default carrier, so long distance calls are often priced higher from these services. The use of prepaid telephone calling cards is a possible workaround.
In the United Kingdom
The regulatory structure in British Telecom exchanges differs from the North American system as there are no free local calls. A long-distance call is therefore known not as a "toll call" but as a trunk call. It traditionally carried a higher rate ("national rate" instead of "local rate") and requires a trunk prefix and area code be dialled before the number. A trunk call is prefixed with '0' for national calls and '00' for international calls, the European standard. It is now normal for local calls to cost the same as long distance UK calls, and is now common, for a small extra monthly charge, to allow free calls to landlines within the UK. This free call allowance does not normally cover calls to the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands, which whilst confusingly having UK national dialling codes, are separate telephone administrations.
International calling from the UK is deregulated in that many alternative providers allow very cheap international calling by the caller dialling an access code, usually beginning with the digit 1, followed by the full international code. These services generally use internet-based connections in the same way as computer-based services such as Skype, Friend Caller and many others, but with the added convenience of there being no need to use a computer. It is this use of the internet for the calls which allows such low prices. Often these same services are available from a mobile phone by the use of a special access number, though in this case there may be a charge equivalent to that of a standard landline call.
In the United States
The US regulatory structure is non-standard as it splits long-distance calls into multiple, arbitrary categories; an intrastate call is regulated under state law but, once interstate commerce is at stake, federal regulation is applied. The local access and transport area or LATA, another arbitrary US regulatory construct, was created during the 1984 breakup of the Bell System as a demarcation between in-region calls (which were handled by local telephone companies such as the Baby Bells) and out-of-region calls (handled by interexchange carriers such as AT&T, MCI and Sprint).
With the breakup of the Bell system in 1984, the US federal government imposed rules to allow the Baby Bells and other long-distance providers to compete via "equal access." Equal access allows telephone subscribers to choose an authorized telephone company or companies to handle their local toll and long-distance toll (including international) calls from their traditional, wireline telephones.
Various feature groups were used where equal access is available to allow callers to select a long-distance carrier for each call. In feature group 'D', the current system, subscribers may dial the prefix "101" and a four-digit code identifying a long-distance carrier to handle the InterLATA call. For instance, 1010288 sends a call via AT&T, 1010333 is Sprint, 1010550 goes to CenturyLink. Area code 700, rarely used, is reserved for carrier-specific services; each carrier places a recorded self-identification message on 1-700-555-4141 to allow a subscriber to identify the default InterLATA carrier for their line.
In the United States, long-distance is either of two different classes of calls that are not local calls. The most common class of long-distance is often called interstate long-distance, though the more accurate term is inter-LATA interstate long-distance. This is the form of long-distance most commonly meant by the term, and the one for which long-distance carriers are usually chosen by telephone customers.
Another form of long-distance, increasingly relevant to more U.S. states, is known as inter-LATA intrastate long-distance. This refers to a calling area outside of the customer’s LATA but within the customer's state. While technically and legally long-distance, this calling area is not necessarily served by the same carrier used for "regular" long-distance, or may be provided at different rates. In some cases, customer confusion occurs as, due to rate or carrier distinctions, a local long-distance call can be billed at a higher per-minute rate than interstate long-distance calls, despite being a shorter distance.
Often, in large LATAs, there is also a class known by the oxymoronic name local long-distance, which refers to calls within the customer's LATA but outside their local calling area. This area is normally served by the customer's local telephone provider, which is usually one of the Baby Bells, despite attempts by some CLECs to compete in the local telephone market.
Callers are usually offered a variety of rate "plans" depending on usage, although which plan is cheapest for a given amount of usage is often not obvious. Plans may be "unlimited" or may package an initial amount of minutes and charge additional minutes at a flat rate, and further varieties abound. Some plans can be compared easily if the number of minutes of usage will be estimated in advance, but others are not as clearly comparable. Some of these plans can be found on websites that compare a variety of long-distance phone and phone card options, giving consumers useful and timely information.
- AT&T Long Lines
- Long-haul communications
- Toll restriction
- Trunk vs Toll
- Voice over Internet Protocol is often used to reduce the costs of long-distance services
- Interexchange carrier
- Alexander Graham Bell, in a speech to the Canadian Club, Ottawa, March 27, 1909. Quote: "It was I who invented the telephone and it was invented wherever I happened to be at the time. Of this you may be sure, the telephone was invented in Canada. It was made in the United States. The first transmission of a human voice over a telephone wire, where the speaker and the listener were miles apart, was in Canada [referring to his demonstration call between Brantford and Paris, Ontario].... etc..."
- Crystal Fire - Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson - Google Books
- "Phone to Pacific From the Atlantic". New York Times, January 26, 1915. Retrieved: July 21, 2007.
- The mosquito crusades: a history of ... – Gordon M. Patterson – Google Books
- 1951: First Direct-Dial Transcontinental Telephone Call, AT&T Inc. Accessed June 8, 2007. Quote: "Nov. 10, 1951: Mayor M. Leslie Downing of Englewood, N.J., picked up a telephone and dialed 10 digits. Eighteen seconds later, he reached Mayor Frank Osborne in Alameda, Calif. The mayors made history as they chatted in the first customer-dialed long-distance call, one that introduced area codes."
- "Events in Telecommunications History: 1958, 'BT's history', btplc.com/". 2008-06-18. Retrieved 2008-08-12.
- "Events in Telecommunications History: 1970, 'BT's history', btplc.com/". 2008-06-18. Retrieved 2014-03-12.
- "Events in Telecommunications History: 1971, 'BT's history', btplc.com/". 2008-06-18. Retrieved 2014-03-12.
- First Transcontinental Telephone Call
- First Direct-Dial Transcontinental Telephone Call
- Slamming Reference
- 1922 Britannica supplement
- The short film "Nation at Your Fingertips, The (1951)" is available for free download at the Internet Archive