Recently, several people have asked me how Tom Whitehead's work at the White House and the break up of the AT&T phone monopoly has led to 5G and beyond technologies. This is a good question and one that is easily answered by a quick look back.
Following the AT&T Consent Decree that was reached by the U.S. Department of Justice and AT&T, for the first time, competition in the long distance marketplace began. While some experts believe that the break-up harmed innovation by limiting the future of Bell Labs, this argument is overblown. While Bell Labs was a great research arm, they were still part of a monopoly and to some extent shared that mindset, which, at times, limited the introduction of technologies. This is demonstrated by the early development of the cell phone by Bell Labs in the 1940s but by AT&T failing to further develop and bring this service to market at that time. Something that did not change for about 40 years later at the hand's of a competitor.
On the other hand, the AT&T break-up and the limits placed on wireless services by the former monopoly, enabled competitors to develop and enter the market place. In addition, the competitive long distance market place paved the way to reduce cellular backhaul costs, which were critical to provide reasonable cellular phone service. This has led to a highly innovative and competitive marketplace for wireless communications. Similarly, without divestiture, we may not have seen the success of the dial-up ISPs that relied on telephone lines to function because of the high-cost to access and use the phone network. Additionally, an AT&T monopoly would have likely been able to fend off and maybe block cable company broadband networks and others.
Since the internet and wireless services are the baseline required for 5G and beyond, it was critical to have given both the freedom to deliver sufficiently to spur innovation in the telecom marketplace. The divestiture of AT&T set the stage for this success leading to the development of 5G and beyond.
Today I read that Malaysia was establishing a government owned 5G services provider (Govt to build its own 5G network with Telekom Malaysia and Huawei (malaysianwireless.com)) with management provided by the government, the government linked incumbent telecom operator, Telekom Malaysia, and Huawei, the Chinese equipment provider. Malaysia may not be alone. As you may remember, the Trump Administration had explored such an approach as well (Trump Administration Considers a Government-Owned 5G Network (idropnews.com)).
This raises a number of issues including whether a government-owned monopoly is the best way to ensure that 5G services are deployed and operated. As experience has shown time and time again (and the history we trace in our documentary traces), a telecommunications marketplace defined by private sector competition leads to consumer benefits – from lower prices to innovative services. The period following the introduction of competition to AT&T in the United States and the privatization and liberalization of government-owned phone monopolies around the globe demonstrate that. In the immediate years following the introduction of competition, access to and the quality of telecommunications services greatly increased, and prices greatly decreased. Today, we continue to see the benefits of competition through the wide-variety of choices available in the marketplace.
I am the last to say our telecommunications marketplace is perfect. We struggle with a variety of issues including solving the digital divide and the like. I lived through the time when government and monopoly phone companies were the only choices. Where if a long-distance call was received, for instance, we could only talk literally to that person for a minute or two because the rates were astronomical. Where there was only one model of phone you could buy; back and chunky. I can tell you that we never want to revisit that time again. I prefer a time where I have a variety of services and providers I can choose from with reliable service.
One thing we can agree with is that 2021 brings great hope for the future that we will be able to slowly put aside the pandemic and return to our "normal lives." 2020 has been an extremely hard year for all of us and we have learned many lessons about our own resilience and the resilience of others. We also found ourselves, even those who were not adopters, to be increasingly reliant on telecommunications – whether it was to work, go to school, socialize and receive entertainment, receive health care, interact with our local government or one of many other functions that telecommunications can provide.
As I write this post, it’s hard not to reflect on what a different world we are living in today, versus when we began production of When Wire Was King (WWWK) in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for cutting-edge technology and science to find solutions at this pivotal moment in history, in order to provide global relief from the novel coronavirus.
As we kick off 2019, the team behind When Wire Was King (WWWK) has many reasons to celebrate and be thankful. Production of WWWK is going well and we are finalizing our trailer, which we are excited to release in early 2019! The team continues to be genuinely moved and amazed by the stories we hear and the insights to which we are privy from the telecommunications giants we interview.
I am so excited to kick-off my latest documentary film project, When Wire Was King. Much like my award-winning documentary, Zebrafish: Practically People, When Wire Was King is a passion project. As part of the telecommunications industry for over 25 years, I have been able to observe first-hand the impact that competition, innovation and regulation make in enabling the marvels of telecommunications.