Kirkus Reviews QR Code
WIRELESS NATION by James B. Murray

WIRELESS NATION

The Frenzied Launch of the Cellular Revolution

By James B. Murray

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-7382-0391-2
Publisher: Perseus

A solid history of a technological gold rush, as narrated by an early prospector.

Murray, a venture capitalist, got in early on the wireless telephone business, which, critics opined, was of use only to rich people and drug dealers. Undeterred, Murray followed his hunch that wireless would appeal to a wider audience. Two developments of the 1970s supported his belief, he writes: the advent of the personal pager, which allowed medical personnel, contractors, salespeople, and other folks on the go (among them, yes, drug dealers) to be reached at all hours; and the popularity of CB radio, which, though dismissed by government communications agencies and phone-company executives as a blue-collar fad, was “a clear indicator that Americans were clamoring to drive and talk on the phone.” Telephone technology being fairly primitive in the early ’80s, when most American households still had rotary phones and little infrastructure for satellite phones was in place, the FCC pooh-poohed wireless as just another far-out scheme; as part of the giveaway of the public domain under the Reagan administration, it relinquished control over much of the radio spectrum, distributing deeds to bandwidth to private individuals by lottery. (This, Murray writes, was but one instance of federal mismanagement of the spectrum through methods “fraught with misguided public policy, political cronyism, and occasional stupidity.”) Most awardees sold their franchises to upstart companies like McCaw and CellNet, most of which were in turn swallowed up by giants like AT&T or driven from the market. Fragmented and uncoordinated, these companies used incompatible equipment and standards, producing the “technology jumble” that hobbles our telecommunications today; whereas a Finn can buy a can of soda and direct-dial Timbuktu from her handy, many Americans can barely get a static-free call from one side of town to the other. Even so, Murray remarks, the wireless phone has been a far greater success than he or any other early trend-spotter could have imagined, and the market will only grow and improve.

Useful reading for investors, inventors, and students of technological history.