Commentary
Published: Sep 27, 2013


(This is an archive written by the late Leslie Centanni. July, 2005) Think back, if you will, to a simpler time. A time when you picked up the phone, dialed "0" and got an operator who worked for the phone company. Remember that? Everyone knew who everyone was. There were no questions. We all knew who was responsible for every phone related thing, and that was the phone company. And then.. disaster. Someone yelled "MONOPOLY!!" in a crowded theatre, and the phone company was no more. The boot heel of government intervention crushed any resistance, proudly unfurling their "fair and open market" banner down the marble pillars of socio-economic justice. As far as the eye could see, pinstriped executives were frantically hawking their carefully hoarded blue-chips, while tearfully pulling the collective ripcords on their golden parachutes.

The year was 1984. The telecom world stood mutely by as monopoly gave birth to divestiture, and divestiture brought forth a life form we summarily anointed "the information superhighway". Few knew of its arrival, and no one knew where it would lead. Those with high and heady hopes of tearing down corporate strongholds led the charge, eager to build fiefdoms of their own. But most of us just watched and waited, craning our necks to see what would happen next. Occasionally, we were prodded into change, pushed and shoved along by corporate whimsy. Band-aid solutions were hastily applied to our new problems, as we sidestepped customer demands in an effort to avoid financial commitment.

The government plan was simple. Open up local phone service markets to other telephone companies, and restrict Ma Bell to long distance only. Fat as she was, she could afford to be chiseled down. Once again.. disaster struck. Computers were attached to phone lines, and the world changed forever. Like unto a behemoth, the phone company response to market competition - local service, long distance, cellular, internet - was embarrassingly slow and flat-footed. Ma Bell clung desperately to her infrastructure, and was confronted with a critical choice. Was the future in connectivity? Or content?

The phone company took a multi-pronged approach, choosing infrastructure and equipment as their mainstays. Brilliant people with dreams of content driven phone services left Ma Bell to her pain-filled demise, pushed out of the nest by her frantic flapping. They sought new opportunities with other, more exciting players and found financial success, often at her expense. Bent and crippled by the hairline fractures in her backbone of services, she endured the cruel taunts of younger rivals as she struggled to maintain her youthful vigor. But it proved a losing proposition, and the capacity to finally offer local phone service has proved too little, too late.

The highway, it turned out, was a murky mess, fraught with political potholes and financial wrecks. There were no maps, no signposts, no way of knowing what the road up ahead was like, or where it would lead. Some careened wildly forward and ended up in the ditch. Others moved carefully, calculating, planning, only to end up missing important turns in the road. Still others, a very very few, found their way to the new media paradise. Bill Gates became the John DeLorean of his own back alley garage.

As for today�s world of communications, can we say in retrospect that the government really helped us? Did they realize their goal of forcing communication providers to "pass the savings on to consumers" when they rumbled them into a corporate WWF? To be honest, while I�m very much in favor of what�s easiest for me, I�m not in favor of monopolies. So I�m forced by economic and financial good sense to say, "yes, divestiture was good." But I just hate how complex it�s all become. It�s not that I hate technology. When it works, it�s great. It�s not that I hate having countless service providers to sift through, evaluate, and choose from. It�s not even that I hate having to figure out exactly WHICH service provider (phone, computer, LAN, internet, server, aacckk!) to call when there�s an actual problem.

I once believed that the multimedia convergence revolution, or the information superhighway, would make the business of communicating easier and more enjoyable for everyone. I also believed technology expansion was the invisible yet driving force for the greater good of our collective futures. We had the means to change our globe from a series of uneven, misguided efforts to connect ourselves into a smooth, cohesive union of interchangeable networks. Innocently enough, I thought logic pointed the way to open easy access. A simple yet compelling communications structure would merely be the vehicle to that future.

But age has a way of replacing naivet� with a clearer sense of reality, a more grounded outlook on the oversimplification of the simple things in life. Delayed rollouts of new services, hastily made deals, lowest common denominator content programming, and the ever present threat of too much government interference are the new media realities. The dream of an openly interconnected world has eroded into a nightmarish quagmire of fragile, easily broken into, quick to get "sickly" networks. Hackers, terrorists, fantasists, and other purveyors of ill-intent claw their way into our lives. And even as we struggle to learn how these important new tools can be evolved upwards, we must continually protect our delicate underbelly from hungry predators and evil opportunists.

My research (yes, I talk to my phone AND computer guys) has led me to the following conclusion: industry leaders should focus on finding better ways of using the technology that already exists. It�s been 20 years since Ma Bell passed into history, with lots of water under the bridge. But the old adage (mine) holds true. A slow, deliberate outgrowth into unproven markets based on consumer demands - ease of use, accessibility, and compelling content - is the king-to-king play. Safe, seamless interconnectivity is the end-game. Since we�ll never really get off the phone, why not come up with something to get us talking? Smart money is on the multi-service provider who keeps their prices reasonable and their offerings in synch with their customers.

I see an exciting future for the world of communications, and future fraught with financial danger, dramatic changes, and a melting pot of cultural dynamism. But more important, the boss just announced we�re closing early for the holiday! Better call my mom.




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