Los Gatos is one of three cities in Santa Clara County that were not in the Bell System. Gilroy and Morgan Hill were also outside the RBOC service area. These communities were served by what was referred to in Bell System circles as Independent Companies.
The organization first offering telephone service in town was called Los Gatos Telephone Company according to historian Willys I. Peck. Later, service was provided by Western California Telephone Company. Western California also provided telephone service to Novato, Morgan Hill and Kenwood. In the 1970s, the utility was acquired by General Telephone (which became GTE and then Verizon). These four service areas are now served by Verizon.
Los Gatos is served by three central offices. In history, these were referred to as the Six Office, the Four Office, and the Mountain Office. The first two of these designations come from the historic exchange names when the town converted from manual to dial service. Phone numbers in these two offices were ELgato-4 and ELgato-6 numbers respectively. As the area migrated to seven-digit numbers, these changed to 354- and 356-numbers. In their earlier life, all numbers for the segment of town served by each office had the respective prefix or office code related to that office.
In history, billing information for calls placed from Los Gatos was recorded on magnetic tape. It was common to see GTE staff driving billing tapes to the air freight terminal at San Jose International Airport. The tapes were sent to a centralized processing center in Southern California. As the tapes were processed, the charges found their way to subscriber bills.
Both the Four Office and the Six Office served suburban areas in the Town of Los Gatos. In the 1970s, both offices operated Automatic Electric 1ESS switches. Locals report community folklore about the public perception of poor service in the area at that time. Their reports suggest the switches would fail catastrophically from time to time. In one instance, a retired GTE employee claims to recall the Four Office having a catastrophic failure where all call processing stopped, and no subscribers the Four Office area had a dial tone. Another person who worked as a reserve police officer recalled one incident where all phones at the police department went dead. He was sent to knock on the door of the Four Office to ask when the police department's phones would begin working again. In this one instance, the outage lasted for hours. In the mid-1980s, local newspapers reported Verizon upgraded the local switches to Automatic Electric GTD5 equipment. News accounts say this was done to roll-out new services which were offered in the surrounding RBOC area but could not be supported by the AE 1ESS. The reliablilty of service was improved overnight and now matches surrounding areas.
The Mountain Office served the Summit Road community and areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains west of town. Although the office code or prefix for service from this switch was ELgato-3, (later 353,) it was not referred to as the Three Office. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the area was served by an Automatic Electric step-by-step (SXS) electromechanical switch. The step office was a maintenance headache and its location in a rural area made the problem more challenging. Users noticed crosstalk and dial pulsing was audible during at least some of their calls. Outside plant in the Mountain area was subject to a variety of tough environmental factors, including long loop lengths and the high humidity of the Redwood Forest. The area is now served by an unknown type of modern, stored-program-controlled switch.
Before the late 1980s, and the arrival of Cellular and PCS service, GTE offered Improved Mobile Telephone Service (IMTS) on VHF (152 MHz) and UHF (454 MHz) in Los Gatos. The service included full-duplex dial service. There were tight restrictions on call lengths because there were only a few channels available. In the late 1970s, daytime calls longer than three minutes were billed at over one dollar per minute to discourage the long-winded. The VHF equipment, which is long-gone as you read this, was located at a site near La Rinconada WTP on More Avenue at NAD27 coordinates 37°15′22″N,121°58′59″W. The IMTS system included General Electric Mobile Radio voting equipment. (Voting is a form of diversity combining used in land mobile radio systems.) One receiver for at least one of the voted IMTS channels was located in a pole mount cabinet on a utility pole along Montevina Road off State Route 17. These IMTS systems were dismantled after Cellular systems became available to subscribers in the Bay Area.
Before 1949, San Jose telephones were manual service. A subscriber would lift the receiver and wait for the operator to inquire, "Number Please?" Most telephone numbers started with Ballard or Columbia. Mayfair numbers served the east side. The City Manager's number was Ballard 1 while most numbers had four digits and a letter, (for example: Ballard 2345 W). One of four letters was appended to telephone numbers: J, M, R, or W. These letters may have tipped off the operator as to the proper keys to press to ring a subscriber who was on a party line.
Dial service and numbering plan
After the conversion to dial service in 1949, San Jose telephone numbers started with names including ALpine-, ANdrews-, BAldwin-, CLayburn-, and CYpress-. As the North American Dialing Plan evolved in the 1950s, these became today's 25x-, 26x-, 22x-, 258-, and 29x-numbers respectively.
When area codes were introduced in 1947 San Jose was assigned to area code 415 along with the rest of the Bay Area and much of central California. Area code 408 was created on January 1, 1959 and included most of Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito Counties. Until the late 1970s, there was permissive dialing between (408) and (415). At the time, the entire East Bay, peninsula, and on to Marin County was in area code (415). Phone numbers were not duplicated across (415) and (408), so subscribers could dial seven-digit San Francisco or Berkeley numbers without dialing an area code and the call would go through. Population growth, facsimile machines, and pagers caused demands for numbers to outrun the capacity of this permissive dialing plan. The additional demands for PCS and cellular phone numbers helped necessitate the (831)/(408) area code split, the (650)/(415) split, and the earlier (510)/(415) split.
Part of the old permissive dialing plan included a mass calling prefix for radio station contests. It was introduced in the 1960s because some contests put unacceptable loads on the Bay Area's telephone switches. Until the 1980s, radio station call-in contests throughout the Bay Area used 575-numbers. Electromechanical switching equipment of the day had been engineered to accommodate large call volumes to 575-numbers. Large numbers of calls would otherwise have overloaded switching equipment causing slow dial tone and blocked long distance circuits.
A patchwork quilt of electromechanical switching equipment handled San Jose calls between 1949 and the 1980s. There were about eight Western Electric Crossbar switches, at least one Number 1 and mostly Number 5. There was a Western Electric 4A Crossbar that took up two floors of the Main telephone exchange. In the mid 1980s, the 4A crossbar was replaced with a digital switch which took up part of a single floor and quadrupled calling capacity.
Before the existence of cell phones, Improved Mobile Telephone Service (IMTS) was offered. As of 1983, three VHF and two UHF channels were available. Subscribers had either a VHF or UHF vehicle-mounted phone, consequently they could access only two or three channels over the entire San Jose area. (On VHF, the maximum system capacity for the San Jose system was three simultaneous calls.)
There was a roaming feature but no registration scheme like the ones used by modern PCS and cell phones. Subscribers who drove to San Francisco or Sacramento had to follow instructions that would not make sense to today's cell phone users. These included, "When within the desired roam mobile service area and, after receiving dial tone, dial code 104. Confirmation tone is heard indicating that all incoming calls will be transferred to the roam mobile service area in which you are presently located."