AT&T developed and used a system for 25 years that handled automated dial-direct long distance coin-based telephone calls. This system was known as ACTS (Automated Coin Toll System). This page describes the history of the system and its eventual disconnection.
Please deposit $1.00 for the next 3 minutes!
History and Overview of ACTS
Before automated operator systems, all pay phone based long distance calls had to be completed with the help of an operator. People dialed “0” and told the operator the desired number and she had to handle all charged manually (known as a manual ticket), as in the old days of long distance before automated billing systems.
The Bell System (AT&T Long Lines) invented the TSPS (Traffic Service Position System) automated operator system in 1969, based upon the #1ESS switch. With this system, 0+ (zero plus) operator assisted dialing was possible. This means that operator-assisted calls could be direct dialed and automatically billed.
However, this significantly helped operators with pay phone based long distance calls. Now pay phone customers could direct dial-their own long distance “1+” calls (as they could at home) as well as operator-assisted “0+” calls. TSPS was a significant step forward in operator bases services.
Even with TSPS, the operator still had to verbally inform the pay phone customer the amount the charges were, and in some cases, had to stay on the line to verify answer supervision (since some pay phones were not capable of coin return). Also, an operator had to be summoned every few minutes to collect extra money, and to collect money after a call had been completed.
AT&T needed a way to automate the process and to keep down the use of actual operators. Hence ACTS (Automated Coin Toll System) was invented.
ACTS debuted in Phoenix, AZ in 1977 as part of an already existing TSPS. Other TSPS systems were modified by the early 1980s for ACTS.
How did ACTS work?
ACTS was a combination of three separate systems that worked in unison. The first was the TSPS system. The second was the ACTS system (with voice prompt announcements) working in conjunction with TSPS, and the third part were the pay phones themselves.
Pay phones send multi-frequency tones in response to money deposited in the coin slot. These signals are as follows:
Nickel Signal: 1700hz + 2200hz at 60 ms long
Dime Signal: 1700hz + 2200hz at 60 ms on, 60 ms off, twice repeating
Quarter Signal: 1700hz + 2200hz at 33 ms on, 33 ms off, 5 times repeating
TSPS switches handled answer supervision and billing. Also handles coin collection and coin return. TSPS control signals from the TSPS to the central office that physically controls the pay phone are as follows:
TSPS Coin Collect 700Hz + 1100 Hz at 1 second
TSPS Coin Return 1100 Hz + 1700 Hz at 1 second
TSPS Ringback 700Hz + 1700Hz at 2 seconds
(Note: All of these are proceeded with a 2600Hz “wink” of 33 ms on/33ms off/33 ms on)
ACTS sub-system (part of TSPS)
The ACTS sub-system of TSPS handled the automated voice announcements (“Please deposit 50 cents for the next 3 minutes”) and worked with TSPS for coin deposit (start of call) coin collection/coin return (at end of call).
Transition to OSPS
Starting in about 1989 and continuing into the early 1990s, AT&T phased out the original TSPS system with a more modern OSPS system (Operator Services Position System) which is based upon the AT&T/Lucent #5ESS switch. ACTS had a seamless transition and for many, the system was identically the same as it had been in the TSPS system.
When and why did AT&T discontinue ACTS?
By the early 1990s, many companies, including AT&T were issuing pre-paid calling cards. The use of pre-paid calling cards significantly reduced the cost of long distance calls from pay phones. (Long distance calls via ACTS, even if customer dialed, were still billed at very expensive Operator Assisted rates).
COCOTs (Customer Owned Coin Telephones) came into being shortly after post-divestiture of AT&T in 1984. The number of telephone company controlled pay phones were decreasing at an enormous rate. Most COCOTs handled their own long distance call billing. And by the 1990s, a number of telephone company pay phones were converted to COCOT like technology. They too handled their own billing.
What was the final nail in the coffin was the wide availability of inexpensive cellular phones. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, more than half of the US population had a cell phone. Many of these cell phone plans have a large number of minutes and free nationwide long distance. So for many people, the pay phone became obsolete.
AT&T wanted out of the long distance (Inter-LATA) pay phone business for a number of years. They were forced to stay in the business by FCC mandate as part of the AT&T breakup in 1984. But by the early 2000s, they were charging extremely high rates – as much as $6 (and more) for a 3 minute out-of-state phone call! As a result, many people didn’t use pay phone based long distance services for a number of years.
In addition, AT&T had to have special operator trunks to handle pay phones. These special trunks (known as Feature Group C) were able to “hold your line” so that the operator had complete control of the phone line and would not release it until they wanted to. ACTS also had this capability. Feature Group C trunks were more expensive than Feature Group D trunks, which do not have line holding capabilities.
Armed with this information, AT&T petitioned the FCC that they drop the requirement that AT&T had to provide coin telephone long distance. The FCC granted dropping of the requirement.
Starting in the early summer of 2002, AT&T started changing from Feature Group C to Feature Group D operator trunks. Telephone companies, one by one, started to block Inter-LATA (outside of your home LATA) pay phone long distance calls to OSPS. At the same time, OSPS was blocking long distance calls coming to it. In both cases, the caller received rejection recordings. Very rarely callers were able to know why, as most were given “generic” messages that the call could not be completed as dialed. Qwest (now part of CenturyLink) was one of the first companies to start the disconnection, and Verizon was one of the last ones to drop Inter-LATA pay phone long distance. By October 2002, AT&T’s ACTS (Inter-LATA) was history.
ACTS lived on for a number of years…sort of
ACTS technology continued to live on for a number of years, even after AT&T ended it in the early 2000s. A few small independents allowed you to call Intra-LATA (inside your own LATA) pay phone long distance services. Frontier was one of these, and was most likely the last semi-large independent that was doing so.
Following the “breakup” (divestiture) of AT&T in 1984, regional bell operating companies (RBOCs) were required to install their own operator services platform. Starting in about 1985 or so, RBOCs (for the most part) started to use Northern Telecom’s (Nortel) TOPS (Toll Operator Position Station) for their operator services platform – based upon their DMS-200 tandem switch.
The TOPS system has their own ACTS-like system for handling coin phone based long distance. The system works in a very similar way that the TSPS and OSPS based ACTS system did. However, the voice prompts are different, as they use a woman’s voice that has a French Canadian accent.
Frontier seems to have completely gotten out of the pay phone business either at the end of 2022 or by the beginning of 2023. So with that, the TOPS service (and with it, ACTS) ended as well.
Listen to TOPS based ACTS from SBC (1 min) (Source: Strom Carlson)
Listen to all the TOPS ACTS prompts (1 min)