The End of an Era

by Lucky225

In the beginning, Ma bell created the operator center and the payphone.

The first payphones were the old three-slot ones.  When you placed a long distance call from these phones, an operator would ask for whatever the rate was for the call and when you deposited the coins you would hear bells or gongs, one bell for a nickel, two for a dime, and a gong for a quarter.

This was an ineffective way of verifying how many coins were being deposited and one could easily deposit coins on a payphone next to him or ring a little bell - the earliest form of Red Boxing.

When Ma Bell introduced the one-slot payphone, it used a single frequency for identifying coins that were deposited: 2200 Hz.  One 66 ms beep was a nickel, two 66 ms beeps (66 ms off) was a dime, and five 33 ms beeps (33 ms off) was a quarter.

This was a good idea, but because it only used a single frequency, a system like ACTS could not be widespread as "talk-off" problems would register human voice and sound as valid coin deposits.  In the late 1970s, Automated Coin Toll Service (ACTS) was introduced requiring new payphones that used DTMF coin deposit signaling, with the famous DTMF (Dual-Tone Multi-Frequency) 2200+1700 Hz deposit tone (same timing as the single frequency 2200 Hz).  ACTS was supposed to be the latest and greatest thing back then requiring less operators for payphone customers and automating payphone long distance calls.

But it was a major step backwards for AT&T.  By the early 1980s, phone phreaks with Blue Boxes no longer working found another way to call long distance by fooling the phone company with tones.

It's amazing that a service so susceptible to fraud has survived this long, but it is now coming to an end.  On May 21, 2001 AT&T filed an application (NSD File No. W-P-D-497) with the FCC to discontinue inter-state sent-paid coin service (ACTS).  On October 15, 2001 by public notice (DA-01-2375) the FCC granted AT&T's request.

The application reports that it's earnings from the service are small and rapidly declining, and that only a small amount of calls are placed from phones where the service is provided.  Furthermore, they say that it costs millions of dollars to provide the service each year, an amount far greater than the revenues generated.  Also, the rates are ridiculous compared to what one would pay if he or she was using a calling card or other form of payment - a minimum of $4.65 for inter-state long distance calls, (a $1.95 coin surcharge fee plus $2.70 for each 3 minutes).  The $1.95 is a one-time fee.  However, the $2.70 is the minimum you will be paying for each additional three minutes.  That's 90 cents a minute, rates that were probably driven up from Red Box fraud.

When you place a long distance call from ACTS payphones, you will now get the following recording:

"Your call will now be completed.  Please note, effective soon, this phone will no longer accept coins for AT&T long distance calls.  You may wish to begin using a prepaid calling card or other payment methods as a substitute."

You can hear this recording at

Once AT&T discontinues the service, that will be the end of Red Boxing.  AT&T is the only carrier that offers sent-paid coin service.  If you try to use any 101XXX carrier, for example MCI's 10-10-222+1+NUMBER, you will still be routed to AT&T's automated system.  I contacted Carmell Weathers of the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau about this to try to find out if any other carriers had offered to continue providing sent-paid coin service, and here's what he had to say:

Date: Mon, 22 Apr 2002 17:40:08 -0400
From: Carmell Weathers <>
To: lucky225@2600.COM
Subject: Re: AT&T Coin Sent Paid Service Discontinuation

so far, the FCC "has not" granted AT&T's request to discontinue service.

Privileged & Confidential

I'm not sure what he meant by this, as they have already granted AT&T's request by public notice, perhaps it's still in transition and AT&T is going to be forced to continue providing the service, doubtful though.  Red Boxing will soon become history though, even with AT&T's discontinuation, the local phone company does provide ACTS for intra-LATA calls, but I'm sure the payphones will start being replaced with Nortel Millenniums and COCOTs in the near future.  So keep your eye out and if you haven't done any experimenting with ACTS payphones, now's probably you're last chance.  Note however that Canada still uses single frequency 2200 Hz payphones, but those are slowly being phased out too.