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5:21pm on Wednesday, 9th December, 2009:

Long Distance to the Past


How much did a telephone call cost in 1986?

I had cause to ask this question today, as part of a laboured explanation as to why MUDs didn't take off commercially in the UK. Phone calls were so expensive back then that even free MUDs had trouble attracting players. We had MUD1 players having to splash out £2,000 or £3,000 a quarter (at a time when the average national wage was £9,000 a year). Phone calls back then were expensive.

But how expensive, exactly?

Hmm, tricky. For a start, there were different prices for different times of day: the morning was more expensive than the afternoon, which was in turn more expensive than evenings and weekends. Also, there was a big difference between local calls and long distance. Around 60% of UK phone numbers were within local call range of London, I remember that, but I also remember that most MUD players didn't live near London or big cities in general (the theory was, these were gamers who couldn't find anyone else to game with out in the sticks).

OK, so most people played MUDs in the evening. How much would a local and a long-distance call made after 6pm have cost in 1986 Britain?

It's surprisingly hard to find out; well, either that or my Googling skills are even worse than I thought. I spent half an hour this morning looking for an answer to this question and came up with nothing. Then, just as I was on the point of giving up, I got an answer! It only told me how much a local call cost, not a long-distance one, but that's better than nothing. The answer is: 40p per hour. Or, translating roughly into today's money, £1 an hour (ie. just over three second-class stamps or just over two mars bars). Playing patterns in 1986 were no different from what the are today, so you can see perhaps how people might have balked at spending the equivalent of £80 to £100 a month on a MUD — and that was before any money the MUD itself wanted. For long-distance players, it was much, much worse.

How worse? Well, I couldn't find out. I'll have to check through newspaper archives or something.

Here's the scary thing, though: after trawling the whole of the Googleable Internet, the figure of 40p/hour that I eventually discovered for local calls was on my own web site...

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Copyright © 2009 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).