THE WIRED CITY IN A NON-WIRED WORLD

A talk given to the Stratford Rotary Club
November 28, 1985

I really appreciate your inviting me to address the Stratford Rotary Club. I am not quite sure why you asked me because I believe my last talk to the Rotary Club was in Vancouver in January, 1983. That talk created a storm of controversy as I used the occasion to defend the freedom of the media from censorship. Unfortunately the issue I chose was to defend the right of the Playboy Channel to be displayed on Cable T.V.

The media coverage was intense with various groups picketing the meeting. The controversy was one I was delighted to leave in Vancouver!

However, communications has been my field in one way or another for 30 years. Although not every speech ends up with protestors with placards, I still find the field both challenging and fascinating.

I have had the good fortune to be involved in three major aspects of the communications and information industry in Canada.

Inevitably these get tangled together with their own wires and cables. As you asked for some thoughts on the cable Industry as well as my latest Incarnation in mobile telephony, let me start at the beginning.

THE COMPUTER SERVICES INDUSTRY

My acquaintanceship with computers began shortly after I graduated from the U of T in Political Science and Economics. I read an article in Time Magazine called, “Clink, Clank, Think” which was a story of the Watsons and what they were doing at IBM. Barely knowing what the field was all about, I went to their old King Street office and explained to the Branch Manager that I was just what he needed having not much idea of what was required. He must have thought I would make a good salesman because I ended up in the IBM Marketing Division.

After 13 years with IBM, I decided that the computer field was ready for a new concept in computer services. This is where I first became intimately involved in the communications field. The concept that a couple of my associates and I had was that large computers were finally becoming powerful enough and with sufficiently developed operating systems, that one could efficiently share a computer on what was then known as a Remote Job Entry basis. This was different from the time sharing approach being pioneered at MIT and elsewhere in the late 50’s and early 60’s as it was intended to be a way of remotely providing to people all of the power they needed from one of the biggest machines ever produced – in the case of Systems Dimensions Limited, this was an IBM System 360 Model 85.

The problem we faced, however, was that the communication lines were designed for the plain old telephone system (POT). It took a great deal of convincing to get both Bell and CNCP to recognize that the requirements were unique and there was definite need for high speed machine to machine communication.

Perhaps one of my greatest feelings of accomplishment was when I was invited to address the senior management from Bell Canada on a Friday evening and was asked to tell them what was really wrong with their communications network from a data transmission standpoint. The next morning at the continuation of the meeting, Bob Scrivner announced the start of Bell’s Computer/ Communications Group.

The computer services business in which SDL was a pioneer, prospered for about a decade. Initially it was designed to assist businesses of all sizes in obtaining computer power. However, about this time a number of us shared the growing belief that this access to information could be made available to the public at large.

The federal government established the Tele Commission under Dr. Hans von Byer to explore what was then known as The Wired City.

As President of one of Canada’s largest computer services organizations, I felt there was an opportunity to demonstrate just what could be done. Therefore, after some negotiation, SDL acquired Ottawa Cablevision. My aim was to provide, through these combined organizations, all the wonders of the new Wired World, e.g. in the home shopping, in the home education, information retrieval, banking and a variety of other things that are still being talked about.

Because this required a change of ownership of a broadcast entity, CRTC approval had to be sought. After months of waiting for the CRTC decision, we were advised in 1973 that the concept was “premature”. The government could not really get its mind around the potential for this new Wired World.

In retrospect I was darn lucky because this was sufficiently premature that in all probability we would have lost our shirts. In any case I had to unwind the whole operation and Ottawa Cablevision remained an independent company.

It did work well for me, however, as I then got invited to give talks to the OECD in Paris, Vienna and other places on the experience.

However, by the end of the 70’s, it became clear to me that the service bureau business in terms of selling cycles was rapidly coming to an end. The cost of computer cycles was coming down faster than the cost of communication lines. Eventually, stand alone computers would be able to do nearly everything that could be done on a remotely accessed huge computer with the possible exception of access to large centralized data banks.

As a result, in 1979 I sold SDL to Crown Life where it merged with Data Crown. This ended my first involvement with the communications industry and the Wired World.

THE CAPABLE CABLE

However, I still had a fascination with the communications business and accepted a position as President of Premier Cablesystems Limited in Vancouver. I thought with my earlier experience I might try to implement the Wired World from the other side, i.e. from the cable side rather than the computer side.

This turned out to be a very hectic period as very shortly thereafter a long time friend of mine, Ted Rogers and I merged Premier Cablesystems with the Rogers Group to form one of the world’s largest cable television companies. In the course of getting CRTC permission for this, we once again undertook to run some experiments in some of these avant-garde applications.

Once again there were some frustrations that were leading me to have some second thoughts about the economics. Like many good sounding ideas, there was a real question growing in my mind about whether people wanted to spend that much time in front of their TV sets. In the home shopping may be all very well but people may really enjoy going to the store. This becomes part of their lifestyle and is an excuse to get out and meet other people.

The economics also looked shaky as most of the cable TV plant in Canada is one-way. Cable was designed as a broadcast medium which makes it somewhat unsuitable for interactive transactions such as in the home banking. There is nothing inherently difficult about making cable plant two-way but it does mean that all the amplifiers have to be modified or replaced to be able to handle data coming back from the home.

An associate of mine from the SDL days, John Kelly had started a company called Nabu. This organization tried to get around the problem by utilizing the high data carrying capacity of the cable to pass vast amounts of data very rapidly in one direction. A small computer attached to the TV set would then pick off the data it wanted and allow the user to manipulate the data within the terminal. This was simulated two-way operation but was an interesting idea – not interesting enough as the company subsequently went into bankruptcy.

In the meantime, most of us had concluded that the immediate future of the Wired World lay more with entertainment than information. Pay TV was on the horizon and the next several years in the cable television industry revolved around trying to launch this new concept to a public who had come to accept regular TV as something they could get for nothing.

This of course was a myth. All TV is Pay TV one way or the other. We pay for the CBC through our taxes. We pay for watching any type of advertising supported programming every time we buy a can of peas or a new car. We pay for these things whether we like it or not. However, introducing a new discretionary form of television proved quite a challenge and only now is Pay TV coming to be a commercial success.

THE MOVE INTO PORTABLE COMMUNICATIONS

While I was in charge of the Rogers West Coast operations, I was asked by a consortium of First City (the Belzbergs), Telemedia (Philippe de Gaspe Beaubien’s Quebec based organization) and Ted Rogers to lead the group in seeking licences to provide what is now known as Cellular Mobile Telephone Service in Canada. Once again I was into a new form of communication but this time it was the Unwired World. I was beginning to think I could not hold a job as I launched into this third career. However, my fascination again was with the growing mobility of our population.

I had watched the success of the Sony Walkman and the primitive telephones that people use to carry out to their gardens while they cut the grass. The telephone companies had never pushed mobile telephones with the exception of Alberta Government Telephones. The original devices were expensive, of very limited capacity and were relatively difficult to use.

The Department of Communications in Canada had decided to open up a whole new range of frequencies in the 800 MHz band so that channel capacity would not be a problem. The cellular concept involves placing a number of low powered receive/transmit sites each of which could use some of these radio channels. The break through relative to the earlier technology was that because of the low power of the units, the radio channels could be re-used, not in adjacent cells, but in a cell some distance away. As these cells could be put closer and closer together and the power reduced, the ability to get radio channels could be expanded almost indefinitely through this re-use.

Another advantage of the new cellular telephony was that it is a North American standard. Finally, true portability was becoming possible.

The consortium I was asked to head under the name Cantel Inc. was a successful applicant for the licences and became Canada’s first national telephone company. The telephone companies in each area were also provided with part of the frequency and Cantel will have to compete with the local telephone company in each province.

However, we are a true telephone company with the only essential difference being that our business is mobile or portable telephony. A mobile is a unit that is attached to a moving object, e.g. a car or a boat. A portable, such as the one I have here, can be carried with you wherever you go within the coverage area.

Cantel launched its service on July 1 this year and already serves 8 cities and a number of the corridors in between. Over the next couple of years, Cantel will continue its expansion across Canada to meet its corporate mission which is to make portable communications available to all Canadians.

THE FUTURE

Despite my switch from the Wired World to the Unwired World, I can see that I am coming full circle. The use of cellular telephones for voice communication is only the start. Early next year we will be announcing data capability over mobile phones. The ability to access data in the way say a real estate agent might wish to check on recent prices in an area while the agent is out in his territory, will become invaluable. The cellular telephones can do anything a regular telephone can do and hence will be just as useful in this area as they are already in voice communication.

If I were to look a few years into the future, I am convinced that these phones will become smaller, less expensive and will be powered with better, longer-life batteries. When this happens, there should be no reason that anyone need be out of touch no matter where they are. The telephone would no longer be a device that has to be attached by a wire requiring you to go to the phone to be in touch.

I also believe that this new technology will have a significant role to play in the Third World. In many countries where telephone systems are relatively primitive, it makes little sense to put up more copper wire. This could develop into a major export business for Canada if we capitalize on the experience we are gaining today in this new field.

The Dick Tracy wrist radio is not quite here unless you have a wrist like Angelo Mosca. But, we are heading in that direction.

I am particularly pleased to be able to participate once again in the opening up of a new field of communication in Canada.