Breakup of AT&T, 30 years later

ListenC-Span recorded a fascinating 30-minute discussion about the breakup of AT&T thirty years ago and its impact on today’s telecommunications industry. Podcast-icon-200wThe gist is that on the whole, the breakup was beneficial. They do express misgivings about the lack of technical leadership within the entity that now calls itself AT&T. I share their concern; when AT&T lost Bell Labs and Western Electric, they lost their technical chops. What was left was a bunch of sales people, union workers, MBAs, and lawyers. The Bell operating companies were appliance operators with little in-house technical expertise.

Whence technical leadership?

One participant points out that two key breakthroughs were invented at AT&T’s Bell Labs:

  1. the transistor (1947)
  2. cellular telephone (1970s)

(I’d add that Claude Shannon’s groundbreaking 1948 article titled A Mathematical Theory of Communication (PDF) in Bell System Technical Journal 27 (3): 379–423 was a huge step forward.)

Today’s AT&T (which is a holding company created when Southwestern Bell renamed itself “AT&T”) does nothing like that sort of fundamental research.

They also correctly point out that the migration from wired to wireless telecommunications puts pressure on a limited resource — radio frequency spectrum. They seem to think that if the FCC opens more spectrum for telecom use, everything will be fine. I’m less sanguine. (See Claude Shannon’s Information Theory, published in 1948.) It’s hard to bend the laws of physics, despite sales hyperbole and cheering MBAs.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695


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