The Search for Telecoms Next Visionaries

Who has the foresight and the wisdom to lead the telecom industry out of its depression? We ask some of telecom's biggest names - and get some surprising answers.

Five years ago, finding a telecom visionary wasnt very hard. Guys like Mike Armstrong, Bernie Ebbers and Joe Nacchio were wowing Wall Street and racking up huge personal fortunes. They were labeled visionaries — leaders with keen insight into what the future of telecom would bring. Perhaps more importantly, they had the power and financial backing to make it happen.

But they didnt. Ebbers is out as president and CEO at WorldCom, left only with a ceremonial "chairman emeritus" title and about $365 million in loans to repay. Armstrong M&Ad AT&T into a clunking dinosaur that he is now dismantling. And while Nacchio still has a nominal chance to bring his vision to fruition, many observers think its going to take a miracle for him just to survive as chairman and CEO of Qwest Communications International.

What the 90s visionaries saw when they gazed into their crystal ball was optical fiber all the way to the home, 500 channels of video and movies on demand and, of course, ubiquitous broadband access. So far, those visions remain a mirage. Whats real are the vast piles of debt accumulated in pursuit of those dreams — or at least in pursuit of the riches they promised.

"People had their vision blinded by how wealthy they could become or how big their companies could become," says Allan Tumolillo, COO at Probe Research. "Suddenly, running a company was only about creating shareholder value. CEOs needed to know more about the financial side than the business itself. Now, the leaders dont know what is going on within the core of their business enough to be visionaries."

Today, finding a telecom industry visionary isnt easy. In fact, if there is a consensus on who can shine a leading light into telecoms future, it is that such a person does not exist.

The editors of The Net Economy interviewed 48 industry executives and analysts regarding the current state of telecom visionaries. All subjects were asked to identify one or more people who qualified as a bona fide visionary. Fourteen of those subjects said they couldnt name a single possibility.

As for the 33 who did name candidates, nothing even close to a consensus developed. The leading vote-getter, John Sidgmore, received a grand total of four votes, no doubt helped by his ascension to WorldComs CEO slot during the voting. BellSouth CEO Duane Ackerman, Internet pioneer Vint Cerf and EarthLink founder Sky Dayton each garnered exactly three votes. The only other industry figures to earn more than a single vote were Allegiance Telecom Chairman Royce Holland and two of AOL Time Warners leading lights, Chairman Steve Case and President and COO Bob Pittman.

The telecom industrys extended stay in the doldrums has some executives wondering whether the time for grand visions has passed. The industry doesnt need to do any more dreaming right now, says Hossein Eslambolchi, CTO of AT&T and president of the AT&T Labs research arm. It needs to work on making the visions it already has real.

"People get on a vision bandwagon," Eslambolchi says. "They cant really execute on the vision, so they change it midstream. They never get their vision to the end state. We need visionaries now that have strong operations and execution experience."

Others believe it can be dangerous to put visions and innovation on the back burner. "As far back as the Industrial Revolution, people have said that everything that could be invented already had been invented," says Scott Kriens, CEO of Juniper Networks. "The idea that big vision has passed is like making that statement. Its just as wrong now as it was then."

When an industry is suffering as mightily as the telecom industry is, the survival instinct is to keep your head down and not call attention to yourself. "Instead of wanting to appear visionary, the attitude is that no one wants to be the first into anything," says Daniel Briere, founder and CEO of TeleChoice.

Not everyone shares that belief. Several of our interview subjects say they see a telecom visionary every time they look in the mirror, in some cases planting their tongue conveniently in their cheek before looking.

"Visionaries? You mean, besides myself?" asks Howard Anderson, chairman of the Yankee Group and senior managing director of YankeeTek Ventures.

Others played the role of corporate soldier and nominated their bosses. "If youre looking for a visionary, I think we should get you John Sidgmores resume," offers Cerf, senior VP of Internet architecture and technology at WorldCom.

The lack of identifying an intellectual rallying point is telling, suggests Deb Mielke, president of Treillage Network Strategies. "No one seems to be willing to look at the industry as a whole and say, Where are we headed? I think this is fear. Everyone is so scared. Theyre jumping into their cocoons."

On the pages that follow, we present the comments made by industry leaders regarding our search for telecom visionaries. Executives offer suggestions for the qualities a visionary should have. They discuss obstacles standing in the way of making visions real, and they talk about the role computer, software and content companies should play in shaping telecom industry visions.

Many of the observations are insightful and encouraging. Others are alarming. Some are just plain disheartening. Taken together, they paint a clear picture of an industry that is struggling to figure out how to find its way out of a fog that has encircled it for two years and counting.