Telephone exchange

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In the field of telecommunications, a telephone exchange (US: telephone switch) is a piece of equipment that connects phone calls. It is what makes phone calls "work" in the sense of making connections and relaying the speech information.

The term exchange can also be used to refer to an area served by a particular switch. And more narrowly, it can refer to the first three digits of the local number.

In the past, the first two or three digits would map to a mnemonic exchange name, e.g. 869–1234 was formerly TOwnsend 9–1234, and before that (in some localities) might have been TOWnsend 1234 (only the capital letters and numbers being dialed).

In December of 1930, New York City became the first locality in the United States to adopt the two-letter, five-number format; it remained alone in this respect until well after World War II, when other municipalities across the country began to follow suit (in some areas, most notably much of California, telephone numbers in the 1930s through early 1950s consisted of only six digits, two letters which began the exchange name followed by four numbers, as in DUnkirk 0799). Prior to the mid-1950s, the number immediately following the name could never be a "0" or "1;" indeed, "0" was never pressed into service at all, except in the immediate Los Angeles area (the "BEnsonhurst 0" exchange mentioned in an episode of the popular TV sitcom The Honeymooners was fictitious).

In 1955, the Bell System attempted to standardize the process of naming exchanges by issuing a "recommended list" of names to be used for the various number combinations. In 1961, New York Telephone introduced "selected-letter" exchanges, in which the two letters did not mark the start of any particular name (example: FL 6-9970), and by 1965 all newly-connected phone numbers nationwide consisted of numerals only (Wichita Falls, Texas had been the first locality in the United States to implement the latter, having done so in 1958) Pre-existing numbers continued to be displayed the old way in many places well into the 1970s. A Chicago carpet retailer frequently advertised their number NAtional 2-9000 on WGN until the 1990s; not to mention, the number TYler 8-7100 for a Detroit construction company.

Most of the United Kingdom had no lettered telephone dials until the introduction of Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) in 1958. Only the director areas (Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester) and the non-director areas adjacent to them had lettered dials, and the exchanges used the three-letter, four-number format until conversion to all-figure numbering in 1968.

In the United States, the word exchange can also have the technical meaning of a local access and transport area under the Modification of Final Judgment (MFJ).


Historic perspective

A telephone operator manually connected calls with patch cables at a telephone switchboard.  Computers make most connections now. (Telephone switchboard photograph courtesy of JoeTourist InfoSystems)
A telephone operator manually connected calls with patch cables at a telephone switchboard. Computers make most connections now. (Telephone switchboard photograph courtesy of JoeTourist InfoSystems)

The first telephone exchange opened in New Haven, Connecticut in 1878. The switchboard was built from "carriage bolts, handles from teapot lids and bustle wire" and could handle two simultaneous conversations (see National Park Service).

Later exchanges consisted of one to several hundred plug boards manned by operators. Each operator sat in front of from one to three banks of ¼-inch phone jacks fronted by several rows of phone cords, each of which was the local termination of a phone subscriber line. A calling party (known as the 'subscriber'), would lift the receiver, a light near the plug would light, and the operator would switch into the circuit to ask "number please?". Depending upon the answer, the operator might plug the plug into a local jack and start the ringing cycle, or plug into a hand-off circuit to start what might be a long distance call handled by subsequent operators in another bank of boards or in another building miles away.

On March 10, 1891, Almon Strowger, an undertaker in Topeka, Kansas, patented the Strowger switch, a device which led to the automation of the telephone circuit switching. While there were many extensions and adaptations of this initial patent, the one best known consists of 10 layers or banks of 10 contacts arranged in a semi-circle. When used with a dial telephone, each pair of numbers caused the shaft of the central contact "hand" to first step up a layer per digit and then swing in a contact row per digit.

These step switches were arranged in banks, beginning with a "line-finder" which detected that one of up to a hundred subscriber lines had the receiver lifted "off hook". The line finder hooked the subscriber to a "dial tone" bank to show that it was ready. The subscriber's dial pulsed at 10 pulses per second (depending on standards in particular countries).

Exchanges based on the Strowger switch were challenged by crossbar technology. These phone exchanges promised faster switching and would accept pulses faster than the Strowger's typical 10 pps — typically about 20 pps. The advent of DTMF tone-signalling solid-state switches cut off the crossbar's takeover before it could really get going.

A transitional technology (from pulse to DTMF) had DTMF "link finders" which converted DTMF to pulse and fed it to conventional strowger or crossbar switches. This technology was used as late as the mid to late 1990s.

Historic trivia

Because the switches were hard-wired together and fairly hard to re-wire (re-grade), telephone exchange buildings in many larger cities were dedicated to circuits that began with the first two or three numbers of the (in North America) standard 7 digit phone numbers. In a holdover from the days of plug-board exchanges, the exchanges were typically named with a name whose first two letters translated to the digits of the exchange's prefix on a common telephone dial. Examples: CAstle (22), TRinity (87), MUtual (68). Certain number combinations were not amenable to this naming process, such as "57," "95" and "97;" it was in part due to this factor that the name system was eventually abandoned, as more numbers were needed to prevent a given area code from running out of available numbers.

Because the pulses in a Strowger switch exchange took time, having a phone number with lots of 8s or 9s or 0s meant it took longer to dial. The phone companies typically assigned such "high" numbers to pay phones because they were rarely dialed to.

To test the basic functioning of all of the switches in a chain, a special "test" number was reserved that consisted of all 5s (555–5555) — half-way up and in on each bank. The "555" (or KLondike) exchange was never assigned any real numbers, which is why today's TV and movie shows use 555-xxxx numbers for their phone numbers (previously, such productions often used numbers that ended in certain four-number combinations that were typically set aside for similar uses — "0079" on the West Coast and "9970" in many other places; examples include the TV series Perry Mason and the 1948 film Sorry, Wrong Number). That way there was no possibility that a fake number from a show would actually reach someone, thus avoiding the scenario which arose in 1982 with Tommy Tutone's hit single 867-5309/Jenny, which led to many customers who actually had that number receiving a plethora of unwanted calls. In fact, many US phone companies either no longer assign this number, or have relegated to internal testing purposes.

However, today only numbers beginning with 555–01 are reserved for fiction and other 555-numbers can be allocated to "information providers". A side effect of the fictional-number pool being reduced to 100 numbers is that the same ones now often recur in different movies or TV shows. The "958" and "959" exchanges have also been reserved for similar purposes in most localities, and as a result very few individuals or businesses have telephone numbers beginning with those sets of digits either (although this fact is not as well known, so such numbers have not been used in a fictional context).

The number in the Glenn Miller Orchestra's hit 'PEnnsylvania 6-5000' was and is the number of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. If you call the number, now written as (212) 736-5000, you still get the hotel.


In U.S. and military telecommunication, a digital switch is a switch that performs time-division multiplexing switching of digitized signals. Source: from Federal Standard 1037C and from MIL-STD-188. All switches built since the 1980s are digital, so for practical purposes this is a distinction without a difference. This article describes digital switches, including algorithms and equipment.

This article will use the terms:

  • telephone exchange for the building
  • telephone switch for the switching equipment
  • concentrator for the concentrator, whether or not it is co-located with the switch

Manual telephone exchanges

With all-manual calling, the customer calls the operator and asks the operator for the number, and provided that the number is in the same central office, the operator connects the call by plugging into the jack on the switchboard corresponding to that customer's line. If the call is to another central office, the operator plugs into the trunk for the other office and ask the operator answering (known as the "inward" operator) to connect the call.

Most manual telephone exchanges in cities were common-battery, meaning that the central office provided power for the telephone circuits, as is the case today. A customer lifting their receiver would change their line status to "tip," thereby lighting a light on the operator's switchboard. In smaller towns, early telephones were often magneto, or crank, phones, where the subscriber turned a crank to generate current to activate the "tip" condition, notifying the operator of the call. Batteries at the subscriber's home provided the current to allow conversation. Magneto systems were in use in some small towns in the U.S. as late at the 1980s.

In large cities, such as New York City, with hundreds of central offices, it took many years to convert the whole city to dial service. To help automate service to manual offices during the transition to dial service, a special type of switchboard, which would display the number dialed by the customer, was used. For instance, if a customer in the MUrray Hill exchange picked up the phone and dialed a number in the CIty Island exchange, the customer would never need to know the destination number was in a manual exchange. Dialing that number would connect to the CIty Island exchange inward operator, who would see the number displayed on the switchboard, and plug into the line.

Automatic telephone exchanges

These came into existence in the early 1900s. They were designed to replace the need for human telephone operators. Before the exchanges became automated, operators had to complete the connections required for a telephone call. Almost everywhere, operators have been replaced by computerized exchanges.

The local exchange automatically senses an off hook (tip) telephone condition, provides dial tone to that phone, receives the pulses or DTMF tones generated by the phone, and then completes a connection to the called phone within the same exchange or to another distant exchange.

The exchange then maintains the connection until a party hangs up, and the connection is disconnected. Additional features, such as billing equipment, may also be incorporated into the exchange.

Early exchanges used motors, shaft drives, rotating switches and relays. Some types of automatic exchanges were Strowger (also known as Step-By-Step), All Relay, X-Y, Panel and Crossbar.

Telephone switches

A telephone switch is the brains of an exchange. It is a device for routing calls from one telephone to another, generally as part of the public switched telephone network. They work by connecting two or more digital virtual circuits together, according to a dialed telephone number. Calls are setup between switches using the ISUP protocol, or one of its variants.

Digital switches encode the speech going on, in extremely minute time slices — many per second. At each time slice, a digital representation of the tone is made. The digits are then sent to the receiving end of the line, where the reverse process occurs, to produce the sound for the receiving phone. In other words, when you use a telephone, you are generally having your voice "encoded" and then reconstructed for the person on the other end. Your voice is very slightly delayed in the process (probably by only a small fraction of one second) — it is not "live", it is reconstructed — delayed only minutely. (See below for more info.)

Individual local loop telephone lines are connected to a remote concentrator. In many cases, the concentrator is co-located in the same building as the switch. The interface between concentrators and telephone switches has been standardised by ETSI as the V5 protocol.

Some telephone switches do not have concentrators directly connected to them, but rather are used to connect calls between other telephone switches. Usually a complex machine (or series of them) in a central exchange building, these are referred to as "carrier-level" switches or tandems.

Some telephone exchange buildings in small towns now house only remote switches, and are homed "parent" switch, usually several kilometres away. The remote switch is dependent on the parent switch for routing and number plan information. Unlike a digital loop carrier, a remote switch can route calls between local phones itself, without using trunks to the parent switch.

Telephone switches are usually owned and operated by a telephone service provider or "carrier" and located in their premises, but sometimes individual businesses or private commercial buildings will house their own switch, called a PBX, or Private Branch Exchange.

The switch's place in the system

Telephone switches are a small part of a large network. The majority of work and expense of the phone system is the wiring outside the central office, or the "Outside Plant".

Some companies use "pair gain" devices to provide telephone service to subscribers. These devices are used to provide service where existing copper facilities have been exhausted or by siting in a neighborhood, can reduce the length of copper pairs, enabling digital services such as ISDN or DSL. Pair gain or digital loop carriers (DLCs) are located outside the central office, usually in a large neighborhood distant from the CO.

DLCs are often referred to as Subscriber Loop Carriers (SLCs), after Lucent's proprietary name for their pair gain products. Early SLC systems (SLC-1) used an analog carrier for transport between the remote site and the central office. Later systems (SLC-96, SLC-5) and other vendors' DLC products contain line cards that convert the analog signal to a digital signal (usually PCM). This digital signal can then be transported over copper, fiber, or other transport medium to the central office. Other components include ringing generators to provide ringing current and battery backups.

DLCs can be configured as universal (UDLCs) or integrated (IDLCS). Universal DLCs have two terminals, a central office terminal (COT) and a remote terminal (RT), that function similarly. Both terminals interface with analog signals, convert to digital signals, and transport to the other side where the reverse is performed. Sometimes, the transport is handled by separate equipment. In an Integrated DLC, the COT is eliminated. Instead, the RT is connected digitally to equipment in the telephone switch. This reduces the total amount of equipment required. Serveral standards cover DLCs, including Telcordia's TR/GR-008 & TR/GR-303.

Switches are used in both local central offices and in long distance centers.

Switch design

Long distance switches may use a slower, more efficient switch-allocation algorithm than central offices, because they have near 100% utilization of their input and output channels. Central offices have more than 90% of their channel capacity unused.

While traditionally, telephone switches connected physical circuits (e.g., wire pairs), modern telephone switches use a combination of space- and time-division switching. In other words, each voice channel is represented by a time slot (say 1 or 2) on a physical wire pair (A or B). In order to connect two voice channels (say A1 and B2) together, the telephone switch interchanges the information between A1 and B2. It switches both the time slot and physical connection. To do this, it exchanges data between the time slots and connections 8000 times per second, under control of digital logic that cycles through electronic lists of the current connections. Using both types of switching makes a modern switch far smaller than either a space or time switch could be by itself.

The structure of a switch is an odd number of layers of smaller, simpler subswitches. Each layer is interconnected by a web of wires that goes from each subswitch, to a set of the next layer of subswitches. In most designs, a physical (space) switching layer alternates with a time switching layer. The layers are symmetric, because in a telephone system callers can also be callees.

A time-division subswitch reads a complete cycle of time slots into a memory, and then writes it out in a different order, also under control of a cyclic computer memory. This causes some delay in the signal.

A space-division subswitch switches electrical paths, often using some variant of a nonblocking minimal spanning switch, or a crossover switch.

Switch control algorithms

Fully-connected mesh network

One way is to have enough switching fabric to assure that the pairwise allocation will always succeed by building a fully-connected mesh network. This is the method usually used in central office switches, which have low utilization of their resources.

Clos's nonblocking switch algorithm

The scarce resources in a telephone switch are the connections between layers of subswitches. The control logic has to allocate these connections, and most switches do so in a way that is fault tolerant. See nonblocking minimal spanning switch for a discussion of Charles Clos's algorithm, used in many telephone switches, and arguably one of the most important algorithms in modern industry.

Fault tolerance

Composite switches are inherently fault-tolerant. If a subswitch fails, the controlling computer can sense it during a periodic test. The computer marks all the connections to the subswitch as "in use". This prevents new calls, and does not interrupt old calls that remain working. As calls are ended, the subswitch then becomes unused. Some time later, a technician can replace the circuit board. The next test succeeds, the connections to the repaired subswitch are marked "not in use", and the switch returns to full operation.

To prevent frustration with unsensed failures, all the connections between layers in the switch are allocated using first-in-first-out lists. That way, when a disgusted customer hangs up and redials, they will get a different set of connections and subswitches. A last-in-first-out allocation of connections might cause a continuing string of very frustrating failures.

See also:

The definition below is very technical, and a lot of it appears to be US-specific:

In telecommunication, a central office (C.O.) is a common carrier switching center in which trunks and local loops are terminated and switched.

Note: In the DOD, "common carrier" is called "commercial carrier." Synonyms exchange, local central office, local exchange, local office, switching center (except in DOD DSN [formerly AUTOVON] usage), switching exchange, telephone exchange. Deprecated synonym switch.

Source: from Federal Standard 1037C


Many of the terms in this article have conflicting UK and US usages.

  • central office originally referred to the switching equipment itself. Now it is used generally for the building housing switching and related equipment.
  • telephone exchange means an exchange building in the UK, and is also the UK name for a telephone switch, and also has a technical meaning in U.S. telecoms.
  • telephone switch is the U.S. term, but is in increasing use in technical UK telecoms usage, to make the CO/switch/concentrator distinction clear

See also

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