Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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TELEPHONE INDUSTRY

In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell was credited with inventing the telephone. By 1884 the U.S. Army had strung a telephone line between Fort Reno and Darlington, Indian Territory, although in 1879 or 1880 they had experimented with the process using existing telegraph lines that ran from Fort Sill to Fort Reno. In 1886 Indian Territory entrepreneurs, including Edward D. Hicks, Clarence W. Turner, John B. and James S. Stapler, Lucien B. Bell, and John Scott, extended a commercial telephone line from Tahlequah to Fort Gibson and on to Muskogee. There, the headquarters existed at Turner's hardware store, and in Tahlequah the Stapler and Sons Hardware Store hosted the telephone line. In 1893 Guthrie and Oklahoma City constructed small exchanges.

Installing telephone lines in McAlester, 1907

Settlement in Oklahoma was agriculture-based and widespread geographically, and therefore telephone service proved very desirable. In 1897 the Arkansas Valley Telephone Company began connecting present Oklahoma towns and cities. The directors included John Noble, Eugene D. Nims, Bird McGuire, and Emery E. Westervelt. In 1902 the name changed to the Pioneer Telephone Company and in 1904 to the Pioneer Telephone and Telegraph Company. That year, Pioneer merged with Shawnee's Long Distance Telephone Company and the North American Telephone and Telegraph Company of Muskogee, controlling twenty-five Oklahoma exchanges. In 1905 Pioneer purchased the Missouri and Kansas Telephone Company and became part of the national Bell System.

Several independent phone companies also served towns throughout present Oklahoma. In 1907, as statehood arrived, Oklahoma sustained 715 telephone systems (commercial, mutual, and independent farmer and rural lines) with 104,780 miles of wire and 68,125 telephones. There were 135 commercial systems, with 63 incorporated companies.

The Pioneer company continued to expand, purchasing independent exchanges and allowing them to use Pioneer lines for intercity toll calls. In 1911 the Pioneer Telephone and Telegraph Company, the Missouri and Kansas Telephone Company, and the Bell Telephone Company of Missouri combined under one president, but each company kept its name and own board of directors. In 1912 the Pioneer company had 115 exchanges in Oklahoma, with 114,975 miles of aerial wire and 19,480 miles of underground wire. In 1917 the three corporate entities and the Southwestern Telephone Company of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, which had been added to the group by 1912, consolidated under one name, Southwestern Bell.

Independent exchanges continued to emerge in the state, but Southwestern Bell dominated the telecommunications business. In 1935 Oklahoma had two hundred telephone companies. Southwestern Bell's assessed value was calculated at $18,540,400. The closest competitor was the American Telephone and Telegraph Company ($2,578,225) in Oklahoma (conducting long distance business) followed by the Western Telephone Corporation ($247,250), the Southwestern Associated Telephone Company ($178,500), and the Oklahoma Telephone Company ($110,500). By 1945 there were 184 companies with a total assessed value of $31,586,530, and in 1954 there were 169 companies with a total assessed value of $61,825,738.

Other companies grew and competed with Southwestern Bell for state exchanges. In 1953 the Pioneer Telephone Cooperative formed, with headquarters established at Kingfisher, and eventually served a number of western Oklahoma towns. By 1964 its assessed value stood at $2,165,092, ranked fifth highest in the state. The third-ranked company was the General Telephone Company of the Southwest, which can trace its beginning to the State Telephone Company formed in Lubbock, Texas. By the 1930s it had expanded into Oklahoma and had been renamed the Southwestern Associated Telephone Company. In 1952 the name changed to the General Telephone Company as a subsidiary to the General Telephone and Electronics Corporation (GTE). In 1968 they bought out the Southwestern States Telephone Company, which had an assessed value in Oklahoma of $2,400,801 in 1963 (or was ranked fourth). By the 1970s the Allied Telephone Company, founded in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1943, expanded into Oklahoma, establishing itself at Roosevelt. In 1983 the company merged with Mid-Continent to become ALLTEL.

In 1977 the number of companies had consolidated to fifty-four. Southwestern Bell had 167 exchanges throughout the state, and General Telephone Company had fifty-three in southwestern and eastern Oklahoma and the Panhandle. Pioneer had forty-nine, most in western Oklahoma, and the Allied Telephone Company had twenty-four exchanges in western Oklahoma. In 1984 an antitrust suit broke up the AT&T Bell family, and Southwestern Bell formed as an independent company. Mergers and acquisitions continued as Pioneer, Southwestern Bell, and GTE continued to buy or sometimes even switch exchanges. Pioneer became one of the nation's largest telephone cooperatives. Independents continued to serve small towns and rural districts. These small companies are regulated by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission in the same manner as the larger ones, including service requirements and charges to customers. In 1992 forty-four companies offered phone service in the state, with Southwestern Bell owning 167 exchanges, GTE 57, Pioneer 51, and ALLTEL 36.

In 1994 Southwestern Bell initiated a name change to SBC Communications Incorporated. After Congress deregulated the telecommunications industry in February 1996, allowing regional companies to compete with long distance carriers, among other rule changes, SBC began to expand. In 1996 it merged with Pacific Telesis Group, and in 1998 the company bought the Ameritech Corporation. The 2005 purchase of AT&T for $16 billion (pending approval by a number of federal regulators) changed the nation's telephone landscape. That year, the Oklahoma Telephone Association, which had elected its first president in 1935, listed forty-four Oklahoma telephone companies as members. These included Valor Communications, which acquired Oklahoma's GTE operations in 2000.

SEE ALSO: RADIO, SETTLEMENT PATTERNS, TELEVISION, TWENTIETH CENTURY.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Eula E. Fullerton, "The Story of the Telephone in Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 12 (September 1934). John M. Noble, "Early Telephone History of Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 5 (June 1927). "Telephone Industry," Vertical Files, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City. U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, Telephones, 1907, Special Report (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1910).

Larry O'Dell

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