Perchance to Dream

Vision is taking a back seat to financial concerns - when will it again step forward?

I dont remember the year, but I do remember the speech.

It was sometime around 1989, or 1990, or even 1991, and the speaker was a man named Richard Snelling, VP of networks at BellSouth. In front of an industry crowd assembled for Supercomm (I think it was in Atlanta), he announced that the time had come for deployment of fiber to the home. Fiber was very close to cost parity with copper for initial installation, Snelling said, and it offered major savings in operations and maintenance as well as opportunities for new services.

Snelling was passionate in his presentation and generated palpable electricity among those in the room. For the rest of that trade show, there was a resonating buzz.

Looking back, the most obvious observation is that Snelling was wrong fiber to the home was not around the corner. In fact, it was far from it. More than a decade later, only a very few areas, mostly upscale subdivisions or rural communities, have anything like fiber to the home.

But the most obvious isnt the most compelling. By speaking out on the issue of fiberizing the network, Snelling played a major role in getting the giant global telecom industry moving, however slowly, in what most people agree is its ultimate direction. He did it at a time when no one else in the U.S. was loudly advocating massive fiber deployment. Though he couldnt predict that fiber technology would develop in a very different way than expected in 1991, much less forecast the day of a fiber glut, Snelling was willing to lay his vision on the line for what he did believe.

In that way, he inspired equipment vendors, service providers and content developers alike to think bigger about the phone network. The impact of his leadership resounded through BellSouth and the industry for years after he left the company in what would be the first of several retirements. There have been others like Snelling — just not lately.

I dont expect to go to Supercomm in two weeks and hear Snelling-like speeches. Its far more likely that Ill hear the term "ROI" more than a thousand times in four days. Thats easily understandable. A service provider executive who stood up and gave a rousing 15-minute rave on the hot new possibilities of aggressive new technology deployment in the current environment probably would see his companys stock price plummet in response.

These are the days of hunkering down, getting practical and not making waves, especially on Wall Street.

As we explore telecoms future in this weeks cover story, many industry leaders think that todays approach is probably the way it should be. I believe, however, that an industry that lacks a coherent vision of a best case scenario for its future has little chance of real success. I look forward to when the vision for the future doesnt begin with a timetable for its recovery.