Through a Glass, Darkly

Posted: 11/2001


Through a Glass, Darkly

Ernie B. Kelly III

It is traditional for me to write a Soapbox column for PHONE+ in conjunction with the big conferences we sponsor in May

and November.

I always look forward to writing them. They serve as a twice-a-year opportunity to reach out and touch readers on the topics that we feel should be foremost in the minds of our membership and our industry.

Because of the time required to prepare these monthly magazines, I usually have to write the articles six to eight weeks ahead of the publication date. That means this article was set for mid-September. To be specific, it was the week of Sept. 10, which contained Tuesday, Sept. 11, a day that has altered our lives forever.

So, of course, it occurred to me — what do I write about now? The natural topic would have been to continue rallying the troops against the Tauzin-Dingell legislation, which, under normal circumstances, still would be wending its way through the legislative process at this time.

However, there is no place any longer in the national agenda for something like Tauzin-Dingell, a bill that is intended to help the business prospects of three or four companies while hurting everybody else.

We have bigger, more important fish to fry in Washington, D.C. these days. The national legislative refocusing has shifted away from narrow interests to the really big domestic and global issues we now have to face.

There were rumors circulating the week of Sept. 17, that the BOCs were going to try to have the guts of Tauzin-Dingell inserted into whatever national economic recovery legislation that might evolve as a part of this Congressional reorientation.

If true, it is a despicable proposal given the circumstances, and even the greediest of the BOCs will have the decency and common sense to back away from that initiative during these times of trial and national emergency. So, Tauzin-Dingell, may it Rest-in-Peace.

Naturally then, the next logical step was to stall or delay. So, I put off writing this commentary as long as I possibly could, looking for some divine inspiration of some type. But the editor was on my back, and the time for submittal was at hand.

What can you say about a time like this? Everything related to the terrorist acts already has been written.

I would love to be able to identify a ray of hope out there somewhere, but I am not sure I recognize it yet. I know it’s out there, but where? When?

From the perspective of the head of a trade association for an industry that has been hurting for quite a while, I felt like we had been kicked while we were down. The retrenchment and reordering of our nation’s economy only will shake the telecom tree harder.

So the timing of our industry’s comeback has been put off one more time. Granted, telecom has been faltering during the past 18 month and there was not a lot further down our companies could go. Other industries will take the brunt of the economic slowdown caused by the attack. Yet, this obviously is going to hurt the economy as a whole, and that will have an effect on our re-emergence.

Everything, it seems, is unsettled. By November, when you will be reading this, the United States may be involved in a land war somewhere. What will that mean to our national spirit and to the domestic economy?

We may have to endure further attacks from terrorists before we once again can feel the relative safety and security we have known up until this point. We just don’t know.

So my prognostication has become procrastination: “Through a glass, darkly” indeed.

Among the many reflections I have had is one related to the importance of open communications in these times of national calamity. The first natural instinct when immersed in these events is to try and get in touch with loved ones, friends and colleagues.

We do that by phone or via e-mail. In the case of the events of Sept. 11, our industry performed magnificently. The phone companies and, in particular, the wireless, payphone and internet service providers had to step up to provide, preserve and restore service.

They came through, big time. It was a reminder, once again, of how important our communications services are to us, and how we have taken for granted that such services should be on instantaneous demand to all of us at once.

Does anyone think this reliance is going to diminish in the years to come? If so please contact me so we can debate the subject. I will win.

In the small world of trade association management, where I dwell, a lot of big questions will be addressed in the months ahead. Will business travel diminish? For the sake of our industry conferences, I hope the answer is no.

Will companies turn to video conferencing? That would be good for some of the companies in our industry, wouldn’t it? Well, for the near term, I suppose it will.

However, nothing yet has replaced

the effectiveness of face-to-face delivery, whether for an educational seminar or for closing a deal.

My wife has pointed out that this will give all these business people the chance to be home more with their families. Throughout the years, I have tried to explain that the conference-travel phenomenon tends to work in the other direction.

Business travel provides the opportunity to be away from the family and the office once in a while, which seems to be necessary to keep perspective, balance and sanity in the office place. The concept is best summed up as: “How Can I Miss You If I Don’t Go Away?”

Business people like to travel. They like to get together with their business associates in resort-like settings. Therefore I think business travel (read: air travel) will come back, but it will take a while, for sure.

Everybody will have to make an individual decision on when to return fully to his or her previous way of life.

Clearly, everyone seems to be in a wait-and-see mode. Predictions on turnarounds now must be applied to the economy and to the national psyche. People feel more vulnerable than ever, and it’s going to take some time to work through and around those feelings.

Until we do, there is likely to be a lot of slow going.

I get the sense that the United States has come together in common purpose in a way that we have not seen in this country for a long time — perhaps two generations.

I also get the feeling that we have the right leaders in place to seize upon that common purpose and to do what has to be done. That sense of purpose will be tested. It will be pulled and pushed.

As events unfold, support inevitably will peel off somewhat, but not to the degree that we have seen it in past events like Vietnam, etc.

We have been attacked on our homeland. That’s not something that we will accept. I also get the feeling that we have identified correctly the new enemy and we have begun a process that will lead to its extinction.

It appears as if the American people recognize this will take time and patience. I hope and pray that all of these feelings are not only correct but also right.

And so what about our own industry? Many of the themes are the same. It still is going to take time for us to sort through the changes and see who is going to survive and who is not.

The dream of fully competitive communications markets is being fulfilled but is taking a much slower and more arduous route than we initially expected.

The natural instinct to feel that the 1996 Telecommunications Act was a noble experiment that failed is not appropriate and not accurate. We have to keep going and keep competing. To do otherwise would be to give in to the forces of anti-competition, that should not be allowed to triumph.

We have been to the edge of the abyss. We have looked over and we are working our way back. That’s the message out there, no matter where you turn. We have to believe in it however, to make it a reality — in telecom, in America, in the world.

Ernie B. Kelly is the president of the Association of Telecommunications
Enter-prises (ASCENT, He can be reached at +1 202 835 9898.

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