Everyone knows about the dot-com bubble, but while internet startups were investing millions in risky new ventures, telecom giants like AT&T Wireless were pumping billions into technologies driven by the same market speculation. What the dot-coms started, the dot-telecoms perfected, and they did it on an exponentially larger scale than the internet startups making headlines. This is the story of Fixed Wireless – a $5 billion dollar experiment that could only have happened in Redmond.
Dot-Telecom is one of the longest stories I’ve ever written, inspired partly by a passion for the topic from my personal experience, but also because it’s a big story that’s gone untold by the mainstream media. During the bubble, I’d open up Wired Magazine and read stories about startups putting millions into risky new technologies, and meanwhile I worked for a company that put $5 billion dollars into a project that ended up being sold as parts for only $16 million. Fixed Wireless was my telecom bubble story, but at the time all the telcos had their own risky ventures and I’m sure there are thousands of other stories out there just like mine.
How did the media miss this? I think there were a few reasons: first, it lacked the glamor of the internet startup environments, although telecom certainly had just as much of the excess. Second, since these were large, proprietary infrastructure projects which were more difficult for the media to summarize for the average reader. Finally, I think the biggest factor was that the telecom providers got into the bubble relatively late in the game. The internet boom really took off in 1997, but telcos didn’t get busy until ’99 – almost two years into a bubble that only lasted 4.
Why the late start? First, because the Telecom Act of 1996 introduced Local Number Portability, which let customers switch phone companies to save money while keeping the same phone number. The industry implemented this in 1998, and I think it consumed a lot of the time and attention that would have otherwise gone into more radical technologies. Maybe this isn’t the cause, but whatever it was they got into the bubble late and they knew it. That’s why they spent so much money: they were making up for lost time, and the strategy worked pretty well, at least until the stock market tanked. Industry leaders saw the revolution in communications that the dot-com bubble was creating, and knew they had a limited window to make the most of it.
The telcos had more money and tighter deadlines for projects that were exponentially larger and more complicated than anything in the internet sector. They also had fewer successful models for how to make it work. This created an atmosphere that was absolutely surreal to work in, and for me one worth trying to document. I was lot younger when I wrote it: a newly disillusioned 20-something trying to make sense of things, and I don’t know that I feel the same way about things today. We’ve gone through a decade of war and a major financial crisis since then, and I think now we’re all less naive.