WHEN WIRE WAS KING: The Transformation of Telecommunications
A feature-length documentary about how innovation, brass-knuckle competition and government regulation have shaped the digital world from the days of a single telecommunications provider to a world of choices and vast innovation.
Story Summary Ah, the battle of the Regulators versus the innovators and technologists. Welcome to the telecommunications jungle, where fierce predators roam while wardens charged with protecting local villagers are outmatched, outmaneuvered, and in the wrong place.
The telecommunications world has come so far since Alexander Graham Bell founded America’s first telegraph and telephone company in 1885. New technologies enter the market at breakneck speed as the convergence between media and telecommunications (product and distribution) continues to accelerate. How can anyone control the flow? Regulators struggle to keep up and mostly fall behind because of the changing technology. How did we get here? Why does it matter? How can we make sense of it all, and why is it so important that Americans understand this ongoing telecommunications revolution?
When Wire Was King is a one-hour documentary that puts the telecommunications revolution into historical context while also looking into the crystal ball of the future – talking to the world’s leading telecommunications experts – to see where we may be going.
Today’s world could not exist without telecommunications. Commerce, technology, entertainment, travel, health, and all societal interaction is now so dependent on secure and efficient telecommunications that, if the plug was pulled, our nation and our world would fall apart. But as our digital world grows increasingly complex – and previously nerdy terms like ‘net neutrality’, ‘digital divide’, ‘optical fiber’, ‘spectrum reform’, ‘digital responsibility’ and ‘universal access’ jump from technical manuals to network news – it’s critically important for Americans to have a basic understanding of what drives, threatens, and governs the technology on which we are all totally dependent.
The documentary When Wire Was King interweaves three primary themes that place today’s telecommunications revolution within a social, technological, and historical context so that Americans audiences can get a better sense of where we are today, how we got here, and where we are likely to go in the future.
When Wire Was King is first a story of technological innovation, from Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the harmonic telegraph (as he first called his telephone) through Marconi’s wireless, and Russia’s Sputnik, to the World Wide Web and the exploding app economy. Part of the story is the telecommunications ‘arms race’ between America and the former Soviet Union after Sputnik’s launch, but it’s also the story of how leading companies in the telecommunications field – from the 1980s through the present day – fought ruthlessly to retain and gain control over the primary distribution channels (the pipes) of communications and information flow.
Early in the 20th century, Ma Bell created a virtual monopoly on primary distribution channels for communications across the United States. But with the breakup of AT&T in the early 1980s, and the introduction of competition, coupled with a shift from wire to wireless, the telecommunications world got bigger and more competitive as phone and cable companies, in the United States and overseas, slugged it out for market position and control of the newest distribution platforms. This cutthroat competition drove technological advance and fostered the wired and wireless digital world in which we live today leveraging the game-changer, the development of the Internet. The introduction of the internet has created a Wild West frontier of innovation and competition where aggressive young start-ups can gleefully topple old telecommunications kings from their thrones.
Finally, When Wire Was King is a story of regulation – or its absence. In the good old days when wire was the primary distribution platform, telecommunications entities were subject to complex federal and state regulatory structures. Such regulation has increasingly failed to keep pace with reality, as wireless, the internet and new technologies and new forms of distribution metastasize faster than Federal and State government can react. And without effective, though appropriate, regulation, the foxes are in charge of the henhouse.
These four themes, innovation, technology, corporate competition, and regulation, are key to understanding how and why United States and global communications networks got to where they are today, and what will happen tomorrow in terms of connectivity, privacy, net neutrality and whether the digital divide between those with access to communication and those without can be bridged. Who now controls the Internet and how can American be assured that universal access is maintained on reasonable terms and conditions (and pricing)?
When Wire Was King tells its story through extensive interviews with telecommunications innovators, experts, policy leaders and futurists, intercut with compelling archive footage, photographs, and contemporary footage that explores the accelerating pace of technological change in the global telecommunications market. This documentary reveals how industry and regulators respond to major paradigm shifts like the arrival of the Internet and the explosive growth of social media. When media product, whether for entertainment, information or governance, is increasingly owned by the same corporate entities that control the telecommunications pipelines, finding the right balance between innovation and regulation has never been more important and will shape the future of how communications is provided across the globe.
When Wire was King is targeted at a general American audience. Currently in pre-production, the documentary is produced by Jennifer A. Manner (respected authority on telecommunications policy and spectrum management), written by Dr. Wendy Leonard, and edited by Barbara Ballow with support from the production company, Henninger Media. This is the same award-winning team who recently produced Zebrafish, Practically People, a science documentary selected as a finalist and for screening at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. The topic is perfect for a single full length documentary, as well as a series. The series will tackle issues such as how artificial intelligence, quantum entanglement, and the cloud will impact the future of communications.