Journalistic ethics? Damn them. I could have been a millionaire.
Just over two years ago, I was writing a story for my newsletter, Satellite Week, about the proposal to launch a private satellite over the Atlantic to compete with the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat). Immense regulatory problems faced the private-satellite entrepreneurs. Which set me to thinking.
Surely it would be better, I considered, to compete with Intelsat by building a cable underneath the Atlantic, rather than launching a satellite over it?
Technical innovation played no part whatsoever in the merit of the scheme. The genius was not to run a cable under the Atlantic. That's been done since the 19th century, when the first telegraph cable linked Europe and Massachusetts.
Nor was it novel to use a cable made of glass -- the so-called fiber- optics technology that is revolutionizing communications by allowing millions of calls to be transmitted through a single cable. AT&T and a consortium of European postal and telecommunications authorities had already announced a plan to lay a fiber optic cable of their own under the Atlantic.
The real innovation, if any, was peculiar to Washington. Not surprisingly, it was political. A few years ago it would have been unthinkable for a bunch of entrepreneurs, armed with nothing but a word processor and glib tongues, to ask for permission to build a private cable under the sea. The application to the Federal Communications Commission would have been thrown out as a matter of course, or else subjected to years of laborious inquiries, in which the public-interest merits would have been endlessly debated while the lawyers grew fat.
But in today's Washington, the people who preside over communications policy are obsessed with the benefits of private enterprise and competition. Having tried out their policy on the American public, with the divestiture of AT&T and the fostering of companies like MCI, they are ready to export deregulation abroad.
The way it looked to me was that a private cable would fit nicely with their goals, by demonstrating to the Europeans that there's a new era in telecommunications -- one in which the staid old monopolists must make room for the bold new hustlers.
There would be no need to negotiate with the 109 governments that constitute Intelsat, only with the United States and Britain. And the richest cream of the international telecommunications market -- the link between New York and London -- would be mine for the taking.
I took the idea to a friend of mine named Brian Hughes, who at the time was engaged in the amazingly lucrative business of brokering satellite insurance. Brian, one of the cleverest people I know, sat down at his Apple computer and crunched the numbers. If I was right that the regulatory problems could be easily solved, he calculated, the profits would be immense.
Let's start a company, he said.
That's when the damned ethics started bothering me. As a journalist specializing in international telecommunications policy, could I simultaneously be an investor in an international telecommunications company?
And there was another, equally fundamental concern: did I have the guts to throw everything I had at an entrepreneurial idea?
The answers are plain. I could run for president or cover the White House, but not both. And with a stay-at-home wife and two kids to feed, I liked the idea of a guaranteed, fortnightly paycheck.
So I made my big mistake. During a sleepless night, I considered chucking my job and signing up with Brian to make my fortune. The only problems was, the fortune would be months or years in coming. And maybe I was wrong. Perhaps the regulatory approvals would not come easily. I could be a millionaire, or I could starve.
In the end, I chose to eat and told Brian to go ahead without me. The security of a paycheck overcame my entrepreneurial instincts. Brian, I think, considered me slightly mad.
Within a few months, Brian called me excitedly to tell me that it was all worked out. He'd signed up E.F. Hutton as the moneybags on the American side, and the giant British telecommunications company, Cable and Wireless, to handle the London end. To add some political vigorish to the deal, in return for legal work, shares had been handed out to former Maryland Sen. Joseph Tydings and former Florida Rep. Lou Frey.
On May 16, Brian's company, called Tel-Optik, announced that it had received regulatory approvals from the American and British governments to go ahead with the project. The design work is going ahead and negotiations are underway with "major" customers. By 1989, the cable will be built.
Brian says I can make the first call.$90By Jonathan Miller; Jonathan Miller is editorial director of Satellite Week and managing editor of Communications Daily.