Friday, May 28, 1999 | 10:13 a.m.
CARSON CITY -- Remember Ernestine the phone operator with the very nasal voice from "Laugh-In?"
She's alive and well, in spirit, in isolated Nevada locations such as Cosgrave, Hualapai, Dixie Valley, Sweetwater and Fish Creek.
Nevada still has about 50 antiquated phone lines where you have to call the operator to connect a call in or out. They are called nondialable toll stations.
You call a toll station customer by asking the operator for the assigned name for the station, such as Mount Tobin No. 1 or Toulon No. 2, rather than a phone number.
In Nevada's Bell country, the operators are familiar with toll stations and patch a call through with no problem.
But toll station customers trying to make out-of-state calls have endless frustrations with operators unfamiliar with toll stations.
"Usually, there's a pause and they ask where are you," said Jennifer Thacker, whose phone is Cosgrave No. 3 at her home about 20 miles outside Winnemucca. "Then you're on hold anywhere from two to 10 minutes until they figure out what to do. Generally, they have to get a supervisor. I've had three operators in a row hang up on me."
Nevada has the most toll stations in the country. California and Oregon are the only other states with nondialable phone service, said Donald Baechler, project manager for Telcordia Technologies' Traffic Routing Administration.
Telcordia, formerly Bellcore, provides software and engineering to optimize communications systems. Telcordia pioneered caller ID, call waiting and toll free service.
Baechler said about 617 toll stations remain in the North American Numbering Plan area that includes the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean nations. More than half of these are scattered in various Canadian provinces and territories with 283 toll stations in Quebec and 139 in Newfoundland.
California has a handful of toll stations at Drakesbad at the southern edge of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Oregon has three toll stations, Baechler said.
Nevada Bell and GTE promise to get rid of all these remaining 1920s-era phone systems by the end of 2001. Once that happens, all telephones in Nevada will finally have seven-digit numbers.
Phone customers in much of Nevada began dialing numbers themselves in 1929 and by the late 1930s major areas in the state had dial service, said Dick Bostdorff, Nevada Bell's vice president and general manager. Southern Nevadans not served by Bell, however, waited much longer for dial phones.
Winnemucca didn't get dial phones until 1956 and Virginia City finally had seven-digit phone numbers in 1975.
Since then, nondialable phones remained in the few areas isolated from towns or local phone exchanges. Over the decades, phone companies wouldn't bring dial service to these areas unless customers paid the bill.
Now, however, Nevada Bell and GTE will pay $12 million and $1.5 million, respectively, to convert phone service by order of the Nevada Public Utilities Commission with added pressure from the North American Numbering Plan Administration -- the people in charge of area codes.