Tag Archives: AT&T

Vacuum tubes’ magic, 1940

It’s hard to believe, but I remember when vacuum tubes were viable circuit elements. Yes, I’m that old. At about age 13, I began repairing and constructing vacuum tube circuits in 1959. Transistor prices fell rapidly and quickly replaced vacuum tubes in low power, low speed applications. Tubes remained viable in high frequency applications above 100 Watts through the 1970s. Transistors and integrated circuits pushed out vacuum tubes everywhere else.


High power transmitting tubes glowed magically. 250TH and 304TH plates lit up with dull orange to bright yellow colors as a function of plate current. 4-1000 plates glowed cherry red to pumpkin orange. Mercury vapor rectifier tubes such as 866s and 872s lit up their trapped vapors with a beautiful blue glow.

This Western Electric film from 1940 takes us through their vacuum tube manufacturing processes. They include a surprising number of skilled hand labor operations. Note how many women performed these delicate tasks.

Seven years after this film’s release, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley co-invented the transistor. Today even 50 kilowatt transmitters are entirely solid-state.

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

Cell providers’ fat profits

Colin Berkshire just published an excellent article about the fat profits that are enjoyed by U.S. cellular phone service providers. His cost estimates seem reasonable, yet they amount to only two percent of revenue. He asks, US Currency Federal Reserve

So where does all of the money go?

He replies,

The only answer I can come up with as I pour through their financials is that the cell phone business is so poorly managed that there may as well not be any management. Large bureaucracy, corporate palace headquarters buildings, lots and lots and lots of executives, and a broken business model are what you are really paying for.

Colin’s summary:

Because Verizon and AT&T are essentially an oligopoly (often matching each others’ prices and structures nearly perfectly) there is little competition, no need for efficiency, and no need to build lots of pesky towers.

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

Kingsbury Commitment, 1913

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Bell telephone system’s regulated monopoly.

Bell System 1900 logo
Bell System logo in 1900

Until December 1913, the Bell system, under the leadership of Theodore Vail, had aggressively absorbed smaller independent telephone companies. It refused to grant competing phone companies access to its growing network, which crushed small would-be competitors. It had also acquired Western Union, which controlled the telegraph industry. Bell dominated both the domestic telegraph and the domestic telephone markets.

In 1913, the U.S. federal government was considering nationalizing the growing Bell phone system (Britain had nationalized its phone system in 1912) or breaking up Bell’s monopoly. Clearly, the government would take antitrust action of some sort, so AT&T negotiated with the Justice Department. On December 19, 1913, AT&T Vice President Nathan Kingsbury sent a letter to the Attorney General in which AT&T agreed “to divest itself of Western Union, to provide long distance services to independent exchanges under certain conditions, and to refrain from acquisitions if the Interstate Commerce Commission objected.” (Wikipedia)

1913’s Kingsbury Commitment allowed AT&T to operate as a monopoly until Judge Greene broke them up in 1984. They had a good run.

Inside Bell during its 1984 breakup

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

Wiretapping for Fun and Profit


ABC News reports on wiretapping by the NSA of telephone conversations of Americans overseas:

Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of “cuts” that were available on each operator’s computer.

“Hey, check this out,” Faulk says he would be told, “there’s good phone sex or there’s some pillow talk, pull up this call, it’s really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, ‘Wow, this was crazy’,” Faulk told ABC News.


AT&T charges the federal government a $325 “activation fee” for each wiretap followed by a daily maintenance fee of $10.00. Verizon charges $775 for the first month of monitoring, followed by $500 for each additional month.

Parody: Gizmodo Original "Hope" Artist: Shepard Fairey
Parody: Gizmodo
Original “Hope” Artist: Shepard Fairey

These companies, rather than refusing to comply with unconstitutional orders, turn a profit on compliance.

Your tax dollars at work, violating your fourth amendment right to freedom from unreasonable search, while feeding the corporatocracy.

What’s taking so long to fire and indict intelligence chief James Clapper for lying to Congress about this during sworn testimony?

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

A tale of two AT&Ts

Colin Berkshire’s excellent three-part article titled A Brief History of AT&T begins by asking

How did it happen that the AT&T network became so poor, their prices so high, and how did the company become one so universally despised?

Within his article’s three parts (part 1, part 2, part 3) he explains,

The reason that AT&T service sucks is the same reason that Microsoft missed being the next Google, and why they missed the smartphone market and the tablet market and every other market this decade. It’s the same reason that HP has failed. It is the “MBA Manager Syndrome” of managers that don’t know their business and whose main skill is finance and politics.

450px-At&tPhoneSeeming vs Being

To begin with, the entity that calls itself AT&T is not your father’s American Telephone and Telegraph. It’s Southwestern Bell, renamed SBC for a while and merged with BellSouth, which in 2005 decided that the “AT&T” moniker had more je ne sais quoi than “SBC”. It’s headquartered in Dallas and is populated with corporate parasites: public relations people, lawyers, MBAs, and union workers. It is not a technical leader.

Lose $6B for your employer.
Take home $21 million.

Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, at the 2008 World Economic Forum. photo: Robert Scoble
Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, at the 2008 World Economic Forum. photo: Robert Scoble
All of their lawyers and all of their MBAs goofed in 2011 when AT&T’s attempt to buy T-Mobile was blocked by the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. As a result, AT&T had to pay $4 billion in compensatory fees to T-Mobile and lost another $2 billion in associated costs. In most corporations such losses would result in an overhaul of management, if not its board of directors. Not at AT&T ( Southwestern Bell). Its CEO not only kept his job, he took home $21 million last year. Nice work if you can get it.

I enjoy reading Mr. Berkshire’s articles. They reveal the inner workings and hidden mechanisms that only someone who’s worked within the Bell System would know.

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

Supreme Court helps AT&T wage war on its customers

I’ve learned that in 2011’s AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion decision, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed AT&T Mobility to place clauses in their contracts which force customers to settle disputes in private arbitration AND prevent customers from bringing class action lawsuits or even class arbitration against them. It sounds like the Supreme Court has joined forces with large corporations in their war on consumers.

CNET documented this in 2012: Why you can’t sue your wireless carrier in a class action. According to its author, Marguerite Reardon, “all four major wireless carriers in the U.S. include such arbitration-only clauses in their contracts”. How did we allow this to happen? Do you suppose that the carriers’ lobbyists (spending customers’ money) had something to do with it?

Will Carless wrote about this disgrace in May in Justice for Sale, Part Three: The War on Consumer Class Actions. He states,

By inserting “mandatory arbitration clauses” into their contracts, companies ranging from auto dealers to cell phone companies to health care providers have cut off their customers’ access to the courts, forcing them instead to settle disputes in private arbitration.

Welcome to The Machine. Welcome to 21st Century Corporatocracy.

Underground engine room. Metropolis (1927)
Underground engine room. Metropolis (1927)

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

2013’s Worst Company in America: EA

Electronic Arts (EA, a computer game publisher) has, two years in a row, been voted the worst company in America. I missed this contest a few months ago, but will place the 2014 edition voting on my calendar.

wcia_bracket_header_2013finalfinal-170wHere Are Your Contestants For The 2013 Worst Company In America. AT&T got knocked off by EA in the semifinals. How did EA do it? Did it win on arrogance, or out-point AT&T on poor service, declining product value, and rising prices? Is their management really worse than AT&T’s? Do their MBAs, lawyers, public relations, and sales people also outnumber their product people? Did their CEO’s misguided attempt to purchase a competitor result in a payout of $6 billion, yet he still kept his job and was even paid millions that year?

Better luck next year, ISPs

I see that Comcast made it to the finals. Let’s hope that more ISPs such as Comcast and AT&T make it to the final round in 2014. They certainly deserve it.

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

The Failure of AT&T’s Advanced Communications System (ACS)

Today, it’s hard to find any information on AT&T’s failed packet-switched network of the late 1970s and early 1980s. AT&T’s History of Network Switching page doesn’t mention it. It’s one of the most costly engineering failures of all time, so it’s understandable that today’s AT&T (which is really a renamed Southwestern Bell) wants to forget about it. It was a project that was always just 90 days away from going on-line. In 1979, hopes were high:

The Advanced Communications System (ACS) is AT&T’s new, all-encompassing data service which will compete directly with SBS and XTEN. . . AT&T expects to have 137,000 ACS business customers by 1983.1

By 1981, hopes had dimmed slightly:

Although behind schedule, AT&T’s ACS (Advanced Communications System) should begin operation soon.2

800px-Boeing_307_in_Elliott_BaySometime thereafter, AT&T’s Advanced Communications System, brainchild of its vaunted Bell Labs, with over a thousand engineers aboard, sank beneath the surface, never to be mentioned again, like a malformed stepchild. They seem to have destroyed virtually all documentation of this disaster: no schematics, no mockups, no prototypes, no photos, no nothing. Apparently when you’re a monopoly, you can waste billions of dollars, and remain in business.

What happened?

I remember reading about this great new network in the late 1970s, and since its failure to appear, wondered what happened. Recently I found a description of this catastrophe. Colin Berkshire’s post-mortem report emphasizes the importance of good system architecture; patching of subsystems will never overcome poor system design. I’m surprised that design reviews at Bell Labs didn’t nip this dud in the bud.

Finally, here’s the story

And now, for your reading pleasure, learn how AT&T wasted over a billion dollars on their idea of a packet-switched network: How the Bell System Missed the Internet, by Colin Berkshire.


  1. Computer Technology: A Forecast For the Future, by William J. Kubitz, Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, published in 1979, page 148
  2. Computer-based national information systems: technology and public policy, by United States Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment, published in 1981, under “The Data Communication Industry” heading.

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

Inside Bell during its 1984 breakup

Colin Berkshire has written a fascinating article about the breakup of the Bell system. It’s titled Bell System Breakup and is in two parts:

Bell System 1900 logo
Bell System logo in 1900

He tells the story from the perspective of an insider, and adds insights that I’ve not found elsewhere. For example, did you know that AT&T’s Western Electric Company was lead contractor on NORAD, SAGE, Nike-Hercules, and Nike-Ajax command guidance systems, or that the world’s largest stockpile of binary biotoxins was kept just outside Boulder Colorado by the Western Electric Company?

Western Electric’s profits

Mr. Berkshire points out that the U.S. Department of Justice wanted to end the incestuous relationship between AT&T’s Western Electric subsidiary (manufacturer of telephone equipment) and its captive customers, the Bell operating companies. Why? AT&T kept its operating companies’ profits low to please the state public service commissions (which allowed them to maintain monopolies in exchange for low profits), while keeping its unregulated Western Electric profits high.

Teletype Model 43
Teletype Model 43

I remember seeing a system invoice from Western Electric to Southern Bell c 1979. One item was a Teletype Model 43 terminal, priced at 1400 dollars. (Western Electric owned Teletype.) I had recently purchased a new one for 800 dollars, so it was obvious that AT&T was moving profits from its regulated operating companies (e.g., Southern Bell) to its unregulated manufacturing subsidiary, Western Electric.

Mr. Berkshire tells a hilarious tale about AT&T’s defense against the DOJ’s prosecution. AT&T spent about 10 million dollars tying up 50,000 college economics professors with small grants to produce meaningless studies and reports, which prevented all of them from testifying against AT&T. You can’t fault AT&T for not thinking big.

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

Tempest in a teacup

The national press this week has been vocal about PRISM, the federal program that collects user data from nine major Internet companies: Apple, AOL, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Skype, YouTube and PalTalk. To quote Casablanca’s Captain Renault, I’m shocked — shocked — to find that snooping is going on in here!

prismAs I mentioned in Paranoid? Worry about Comcast and AT&T, not Google, NSA’s sniffing of all incoming packets at a major AT&T switching center is well-documented. It summarized:

My guess is that all major American ISPs have a room 641A, where all traffic is inhaled by NSA analyzers. You may safely assume that NSA, despite law that restricts them to foreign surveillance only, is monitoring all of your Internet actvity.

I’m not so concerned about Facebook et al. It’s the sniffing of ISP (Internet Service Provider) traffic that concerns me. We should remember Ben Franklin’s admonition:

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

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

Tim Wu discusses the Internet and telecoms in the US

Tim Wu, who first coined the phrase “net neutrality”, can be seen and heard discussing the Internet in context with information market history in a recent speech titled The Rise And Fall Of Information Empires on YouTube.

masterswitch-160wTim is author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.

ListenYou can also listen to his information market observations during an audio interview with WABC radio host John Batchelor.

ListenTim again speaks in more detail during an interview with KERA’s Krys Boyd.

One message is that information markets — movies, telephone, radio, data — seem to devolve from open to closed. This leads to

  • lack of innovation
  • inflated prices

He points out that Bell Labs invented a (steel) tape recorder – based telephone answering machine in 1931 but didn’t develop it because they feared that it would reduce revenue from Bell’s operating companies. (Sounds like Kodak: they hid their invention of the digital camera because they feared that it would kill their photographic film business.)

According to Mr. Wu, “People are all the same: when they’re not in charge, they favor competition. When they’re in charge, they hate competition.”

Another message is that ownership of content and transport medium (“the pipes” that deliver content) should be kept separated.

empire of the airIf you’re interested in the history of American radio broadcasting, there’s no finer book than Tom Lewis’ Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. I loved learning about the giants: David Sarnoff, Lee De Forest, and Edwin Armstrong.

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

My recent AT&T IP routing odyssey

I’m convinced that every tech company contains a handful of engineers and technicians who know their product; every other employee helps create layers that prevent customers from speaking with them. AT&T is no different. I have a couple Miami-based clients who were unable to see their own websites (hosted in Orlando) when using their AT&T DSL Internet connections. Their traceroute results revealed that their packets were being dropped by AT&T, rather than being routed to Level3. Their packets never left AT&T’s network.

Twice I contacted AT&T’s DSL support department without success. One support person suggested that AT&T’s DNS servers may not have received the update for the clients’ domains. I was certain that this wasn’t the case, but obediently followed her instructions on how to request a DNS update via email, with no result. The other support person suggested that the problem wasn’t AT&T’s. On a theory that maybe Level3 was rejecting the packets, I posted a request for help on a Level3 tech support page and received no reply.

caseclosed-150wI called again. John Ledyard, another AT&T DSL support person, listened, agreed that the problem could be in AT&T’s routing tables, and asked me to email him the source and destination IP addresses together with a broken traceroute result. Mr. Ledyard told me that although he couldn’t personally fix the problem, he would forward my email to someone who could fix it. Voilà! Within a week, the packets were reaching the destination host.

I don’t know exactly what was broken or why the problem occurred, but now it’s repaired. All’s well that ends well.

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

The 1920 Hush-A-Phone and today’s Internet

hush-a-phone adI’ve known about 1968’s Carterfone decision for decades, but just recently learned of the 1956 Hush-A-Phone decision. The Hush-A-Phone was a simple cup-like acoustic gadget that fit over a telephone mouthpiece. It had been manufactured since 1920. In the late 1940s, AT&T complained about the Hush-A-Phone to the FCC, who ruled against Hush-A-Phone. Hush-A-Phone appealed to the DC District Court, which overturned the FCC decision in 1956. Thus, the door to today’s open Internet was nudged open by a simple 1920-era gadget. In 1968, the FCC’s Caterphone decision opened that door a bit wider.

Carterphone adThe Carterfone was an electrical device that acoustically coupled a telephone handset to a radio transceiver. I’d call it an acoustic phone patch. A radio operator uses a phone patch to establish communication between someone in radio communication and someone with a telephone but no radio transceiver. Phone patches are valuable during emergencies. Most of the phone patches that I’ve used connect electrically via an audio transformer and coupling capacitor to the phone company’s copper loop. The Carterfone instead used rubber acoustic cups with microphone and speaker to couple the voices. Incredibly, AT&T objected to the Carterfone.

In 1968, the Federal Communications Commission ruled against AT&T and allowed the Carterfone and other devices to be connected directly to the AT&T network.

AT&T’s objections were nonsense.

Both the Carterfone and the Hush-A-Phone were mere acoustic devices; they had no electrical connection to AT&T’s desksets or its network. Despite this, and despite logic, AT&T argued that both devices would harm its network.

For the first half of the twentieth century, AT&T enjoyed a regulated monopoly in telecommunications. Democratic administrations helped protect their monopoly and profits in return for juicy union jobs. Union workers vote for Democrat candidates. The Hush-A-Phone decision in 1956 was the beginning of the end of the monopoly . . . and it laid the foundation for today’s open Internet.


I notice a pattern. Under Democrat administrations, the FCC ruled in favor of AT&T’s monopoly. The milestone rulings that dismantled the monopoly were under Republican administrations, including Judge Harold Greene’s landmark 1984 decision that divided the AT&T operating company into seven “baby Bells”. Do you think that this is a coincidence?

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

Smartphones’ impact on spectrum

Smartphones chew up rf (radio frequency) spectrum. Last month my Android phone, according to T-Mobile, consumed 15 gigabytes of data — and I don’t stream movies.

Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s CEO, recently expressed regret that AT&T offered iPhone buyers unlimited data for $30 per month:

My only regret was how we introduced pricing in the beginning, because how did we introduce pricing? Thirty dollars and you get all you can eat. And it’s a variable cost model. Every additional megabyte you use in this network, I have to invest capital.

Nobody foresaw the voracious data appetite of the iPhone.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stated that a smart phone uses 24 times more spectrum than the predecessor feature phones, and a tablet uses 120 times more spectrum. Without taking action to find more spectrum for these devices, “we risk losing out on extraordinary commercial and social opportunities,” he said.

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

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