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Pulling the Plug : Phone Company to Replace Last Manual Switchboard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last of the old-fashioned manual telephone switchboards in California is being phased out and will be replaced in a few days with computerized equipment, marking the end of an era in this small farming town 15 miles west of Fresno.

Operators for the Kerman Telephone Co. still pull and plug cords around the clock at a four-position manual board, a technique abandoned by most telephone companies by the 1950s. An official with a state telephone association described Kerman’s board as the last of its kind in the state.

“I could have done away with the old board years ago, but I didn’t want to. I suppose you could call me a sentimentalist,” said Bill Sebastian, 75, who has been president and owner of the 4,500-subscriber independent telephone company since 1946. “But it goes beyond that,” he added.

“We have a lot of migrant farm workers in Kerman with families in Mexico. They frequently call home. Every one of our operators is bilingual; they help put those calls through.”

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Sebastian said he stalled for years on doing away with the old board because he feared he would have to lay off some of the operators if he made the conversion.

“But at this point in time it’s possible to retire the old manual board without retiring any of the operators. They will work keys on computer boards, still perform all the personal services as in the past, but be able to do it more efficiently,” he explained.

Operators, for example, will not have to personally compute the cost of long-distance calls made from coin boxes. With the computer the rate will flash up immediately on the screen.

Sebastian’s phone company is as up-to-date as any other in the state, with computerized equipment, the works. The only exception is the manual board.

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“Our eight women operators on the manual board run answering services for businesses, are operators for mobile radios and serve calls made from coin boxes,” Sebastian explained.

All 800 numbers, collect calls, credit card calls from pay phones have been going through operators on the old-fashioned board. (Kerman is one of the few places in California where a call from a pay telephone still only costs a dime.)

Such calls made from homes and businesses here are dialed automatically like everywhere else.

Once the manual board is replaced sometime this week, the operators will work stints on the computerized equipment and have other tasks as well. But none will lose their jobs.

“That’s the important thing,” Sebastian said. “The telephone company has a million-dollar payroll in Kerman (population 4,000) and the town counts on it. It’s my obligation to keep that payroll intact.”

The company, which serves customers within a six-mile radius, employs 50 men and women.

Last year at the California Telephone Assn.'s annual convention, Sebastian was honored for his outstanding contributions to the telephone industry in the state. His involvement dates back to 1937 when he went to work as a switchman for the Whittier Telephone Co. in Los Angeles County.

“Bill Sebastian has the absolute latest up-to-the-minute technology in this small-town phone company. Yet, at the same time, he hung onto the old manual switchboard years after it became a museum piece for everyone else in the business,” said Barry Ross, 45, executive director of CTA, an association of the state’s telephone companies.

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“You probably could count on your hands the number of manual boards still used by phone companies across the nation,” Ross added.

When Sebastian bought the company in 1946 there were only 200 customers. The first year, sales were less than $6,000. Last year they were $3 million, he said.

“I worked as a switchman for the Whittier Telephone Co. from 1937 to 1946. This phone company was for sale. I paid $40,000 for it. My brother put in $6,000, my aunt, $4,000.”

At first the office was in Sebastian’s home, the manual switchboard in his living room. His wife of 52 years, Katie, was one of the telephone operators.

“I personally put in the new lines, installed telephones and Katie and I ran the business,” he continued. His wife is still the phone company’s secretary.

“When Katie and I first came to Kerman everyone was on a 10-party line. Every time someone on a party line received a call the phone rang in all 10 houses. Everyone had a code, a long and a short, two shorts, a long and three shorts, that sort of thing.

“The phone would ring all night, but people were tuned in only to their code and would sleep through the other calls. Even the dogs knew the code and would wake up only when the number for the house rang.”


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