Tollok, a line splicer for Bell of Pennsylvania, was splicing hundreds of these lines on Monday. When a visitor asked how many lines were in the vault, Tollok looked up, grinned and said, "At least a zillion."
Well, not quite a zillion. In truth, Tollok and his colleagues on what the phone company calls the Locust Project will splice in the next three years a mere 1.1 million wires, project manager Andy Crawford says.
When the Locust Project is completed in 1991, the phone company - responding to growing demand for service in new office buildings, and aiming to sell exotic new services to customers - will have rebuilt its Center City switching center. And, Bell engineers hope, it will happen with almost no disruption of phone service for Bell's 108,000 customers in Center City.
It is a massive undertaking with a price tag of about $65 million, Bell spokesman Tom Duddy said. It is sort of like rebuilding the Schuylkill Expressway - but without traffic delays.
Here is what it involves:
While the existing switching system continues to operate, Bell is assembling a new switching system elsewhere in the central office. The new system will be connected to the mass of phone lines without any lines being yanked from the existing system. After everything is connected to the new system, the old one will be turned off and the new one turned on. And no one - even people on the phone when the big switch takes place - will know the difference.
At least, that's the plan.
"The chance of doing this entire job without a mistake is slim," said George Sharp, manager of network operations at the Arch Street facility.
The splicing began in April. To date, said Crawford, four phone calls have been disrupted because of the work.
In a room next to Sharp's sixth-floor office is a map of the area served by the Arch Street central office. Highlighted are all the locations where office towers are under construction or being planned.
"Right now there is 8.3 million square feet of office space under construction in Center City," Sharp said. "That's really the trigger for the event that we're undertaking. Our current capacity would expire sometime in 1989."
But the project will do more than double the capacity of the switching system. The new equipment will allow Bell to sell a host of new "information services" that until March were off-limits to local phone companies.
It was in March that U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene, who oversees the evolving consent decree that broke up AT&T's Bell System, said he would allow the seven regional phone companies - including Bell Atlantic, which owns Bell of Pennsylvania - to enter the new businesses.
Among them are telephone answering, which uses equipment in the central office to act as an answering machine for individual customers; voice mail, which is a more complex message system designed for businesses, and new information pipelines that will allow computer users to communicate with each other or gain access to almost limitless storehouses of information on a single phone line.
When the services were previewed this year in Washington, Bell Atlantic's chairman and chief executive, Thomas E. Bolger, said that after five years,
revenues from the services would be measured in the "hundreds of millions" of dollars.
Also, the new system will bring the central office into the age of ISDN - the Integrated Services Digital Network. It is a very important change for the phone company and its big business customers.
Most telephone calls are transmitted in analog, or electrical, waves. Separate lines and equipment are needed for voice, data and video signals. ISDN, which sends information in digital streams - transforming the signals into numerical values - can handle much more information. With ISDN, all the signals - voice, data and video - can travel along the same line at the same time.
"Business customers are screaming for this," said Paul Varevice, manager of network administration at the Center City central office. "A lot of them don't know why they want it. They just know they want it."
By installing digital switchers, the phone company hopes to keep the business of big customers who might otherwise find it worthwhile to bypass the local central office for digital transmissions.
Digital switchers being purchased by Bell, which cost about $9 million, can route many more calls than the old analog models. In the Locust Project, one or two digital switchers will replace four analog models and will be able to handle more calls, Sharp said.
Bell Atlantic, which owns Bell of Pennsylvania, would like to "buy American," said Raymond W. Smith, who is to become the chairman and chief executive of the company next year, but it does not like to buy from AT&T.
Though AT&T spawned Bell Atlantic in 1984, the two companies are competitors on a number of fronts. One of those is business-phone systems. AT& T sells PBX equipment, which allows a business to have its own in-house phone system that permits such activities as conference calls. Bell Atlantic sells Centrex, a system that performs the same function for the customer but uses equipment in Bell's central offices. The rub for Bell is that it often has to buy AT&T equipment to compete with AT&T's PBXs.
Bell and the other regional phone companies want to be allowed to make their own equipment, or at least to enter joint ventures with other manufacturers, to compete with AT&T. In partnerships with the foreign companies, Smith said, Bell Atlantic could persuade them to bring more manufacturing jobs to the United States.
The regional Bell companies have asked Greene to alter the AT&T consent decree to allow them to manufacture equipment.
Down in the Arch Street vault, the legal complexities and global implications of the project were far from Tollok's thoughts as he went about his chores.
At 2:20 p.m. Monday, Tollok pressed a lever that spliced 25 phone lines simultaneously. If people were talking on the lines, they never knew what happened. Instantly, their calls were transmitted to two switching systems instead of one.
Mercifully, splicers on this job use a tool that allows them to splice 25 copper wires at a time. The wires, each about one-sixteenth of an inch thick, are placed in grooves along color-coded brackets. When two brackets are pushed together with a small hydraulic press, the wires they carry are connected.
All day long, Tollok repeated the routine. By 2 p.m., he had spliced about 400 lines, which was not a bad pace, said a supervisor, Joe McCollian. The company expects splicers to handle 400 to 800 lines a day, McCollian said.
Tollok had to identify the lines coming in, then connect them to the appropriate lines leading to the new switching system on the seventh floor.
"It gets to be kind of repetitive, and that's the real danger," said Tollok, who talked while sifting through bunches of wires. "If you lose your concentration, you make mistakes."