Wide Area Telephone Service
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In North American telecommunications, a Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) was a long distance service offering for customer dial-type telecommunications between a given customer [user] station and stations within specified geographic rate areas employing a single telephone line between the customer user location and the serving central office. Each access line could be arranged for outward (OUT-WATS) or inward (IN-WATS) service, or both.
WATS was introduced by the Bell System in 1961 as an early, primitive form of long-distance flat-rate plan by which a business could obtain a special line with an included number of hours ('measured time' or 'full time') of long-distance calling to a specified area. These lines were typically connected to private branch exchanges in large businesses. WATS lines were the basis for the first direct-dial toll free +1-800 numbers in 1967; by 1976, WATS brought AT&T a billion dollars in annual revenue.
For outbound calls, the 1984 AT&T divestiture brought multiple competitors offering similar services using standard business telephone lines; the special WATS line was ultimately supplanted by other flat-rate offerings. The requirement that an inbound toll-free number terminate at a special WATS line or fixed-rate service was also rendered obsolete by the 1980s due to intelligent network capability and technological improvement in the +1-800 service. A toll-free number may now terminate at a T carrier line, at any standard local telephone number or at one of multiple destinations based on time of day, call origin, cost or other factors.
In Outbound WATS the US was defined by Bands 0 through 5. Band zero was intrastate calling and bands 1 through 5 (or 6) were interstate calls that were progressively further from the originating number. Historically the higher band number carried a higher price per month or per minute. These lines could be used for outbound long distance only; not local. In the US, interstate WATS lines could not be used for intrastate calls, and vice-versa. With wider availability of inexpensive long distance using regular business lines, OUTWATS service became obsolete late in the 20th century.
The original North American toll-free number was the Zenith number, published in one distant city (or a few cities) only. Published as "Zenith" and a five-digit number, these required operator assistance. The called party was charged for the operator-assisted call.
With "inward WATS", introduced for interstate calls by AT&T in 1967, subscribers were issued a toll-free telephone number in a designated toll-free area code. Unlike a collect call or a call to a Zenith number, +1-800- normally may be dialled directly with no live operator required. Callers within a designated area could call without incurring a toll charge as the recipient paid for the calls at a fixed rate. InWATS exchanges were assigned to Canada (+1-800-387- Toronto, +1-800-267- Ottawa...) and other North American Numbering Plan countries, but the original InWATS in each country accepted domestic calls only. Any attempt to call a foreign +1-800 gave a pre-recorded error, "the number you have dialled is not available from your calling area."
The original InWATS system was supplanted in the 1980s. Modern systems eliminated requirements tying toll-free numbers to dedicated flat-rate inbound WATS lines. Direct inward dial, introduced in 1983, allowed one trunk to carry calls for multiple numbers. AT&T's monopoly on US toll-free numbers ended in 1986, encouraging flexibility in order to match rivals Sprint and MCI. By 1989, fixed "bands" of coverage area had been largely replaced by distance-based billing, a growing number of 1-800 numbers were being terminated at standard local business or residence lines and one number could be sent to multiple locations based on call origin, least-cost routing or time of day routing. RespOrgs were established in the US in 1993 and Canada in 1994 to provide toll free number portability using the Service Management System (SMS/800) database. Calls from Canada and the US, intrastate and interstate, could terminate at the same 1-800 number, even via different carriers. Vanity numbers became easier to obtain as a toll-free exchange prefix was no longer tied to a geographic location. By the 21st century, Voice over IP placed toll-free and foreign exchange numbers into the hands of even the smallest users, to whom dedicated inbound lines under the original InWATS model would have been prohibitively expensive.
- This article incorporates public domain material from the General Services Administration document "Federal Standard 1037C".
- Alan Stone (Jan 1, 1997). How America Got On-line: Politics, Markets, and the Revolution in Telecommunications. M.E. Sharpe. Retrieved 2013-10-31.
- Cincinnati Bell (April 1971). WATS was built for Philip Carey (and you too) (advertisement). Cincinnati Magazine. pp. 63–64.
- 800 services now a fact of life. Network World. 1989-07-03. Retrieved 2013-10-31.