New book by RSF author exposes telecom’s scandalous past
Storytellers can be born at any age, and there’s no expiration date on a great yarn. These points are proven by Rancho Santa Fe’s Paul D. Olsen, a retired telecommunications executive who could be relaxing, but instead spent the past three years researching and writing a compelling new book, “Phone Warriors: Exposing the Telecom Wars of the 1970s”.
The book achieved top-seller status in three Amazon categories just after its July publication and garnered a host of rave reviews. Olsen says he was surprised at how long it took to bring the book from an idea to the printed page. But with the support of his wife, Susie, and compelled by a desire to shed light on the murky and salacious history of the telecom industry and AT&T, he got the job done. Now with the launch of the book at age 82, he can claim his spot as one of Rancho Santa Fe’s oldest successful debut authors.
The book is an inside look at the operations of an industry that today many perceive as sleek and smooth. But before there was a plethora of wireless carriers and equipment makers to choose from, there was a mighty communications behemoth who ruled the country. “Ma Bell,” as AT&T came to be known, was the sole proprietor of telephone systems in the United States. From its founding in 1885 it ran its business unhampered by competition. That changed in 1982 when the government deemed the company a monopoly and mandated its break-up. The details are public record, but what’s not so well-known is the subject of Olsen’s book. Behind the scenes, AT&T’s operating companies were a hot bed of bribes, backroom dealings and illegal activities while some new entrants and consultants engaged in sex and kickbacks to win contracts.
“Make no mistake, Ma Bell was a mean mother—a BEAST,” Olsen asserts in the preface. Divided into seven mini books and 36 chapters, Phone Warriors is a detailed look at the industry, but also a deep dive into secret parts of the business most don’t know about.
“Few are aware of AT&T’s unscrupulous and illegal activities that led to their divestiture, why the U.S. Department of Justice went after them,” Olsen said. It’s a story with all the intrigue, surprises and secrets found in any contemporary high-tech drama. Young readers might be surprised to learn that what happened in telecom’s past rivals any current controversies at Facebook or Twitter. The book is full of specific details and shocking moments, recounted by those who were there.
“Get us girls and get us money.” These words were uttered by Abe Stein, San Diego County communications director, when he was soliciting a telephone contract. In other words, if a company providing an independent telephone system wasn’t willing to compromise ethical business practices, then they could be cut out of a deal. Olsen cites that incident as one of many that illustrate the rampant corruption in the beginning of the industry.
“Even though I was in the business and knew of the San Diego County contract—I was not aware of the extent of extortion, sex and drugs,” Olsen said. Before its breakup, AT&T and its Bell Operating Companies were willing to quash potential competition by almost any means necessary. “They entertained politicians and gifted government officials to encourage approval of rate increases... They also tried to get customers to break contracts, threatened to stop doing business with customers who wanted to change out their Bell system, engaged in sabotage, promised lower prices without regulatory approval and used delay tactics,” he said. “Once competition was allowed, unscrupulous consultants quickly found they could bribe providers of private systems. The corruption worked both ways as some companies would offer a bribe or kick-back to a customer or consultant.”
Olsen certainly had a front-row seat for the drama. He was one of the vice presidents of Arcata Communications, the first national company that competed with AT&T and he was director of the North American Telephone Association. In his decades in the industry, he learned first-hand that AT&T’s willingness to crush competitors, with legal or illegal means, came straight from the chairman and down through the ranks. As he researched the book, he reconnected with peers in the industry who shared their harrowing and personal anecdotes. A few people were reluctant to talk to him on the record, and a few were no longer living, but Olsen found plenty who were ready and willing to talk. Most were eager to see the real telecom industry story come to light, instead of the whitewashed business details that exist in many other books.
One reviewer wrote that Phone Warriors “reminded me how AT&T and Pacific Bell rarely played fair. The book shows how those who battled AT&T had another problem to face in addition to pioneering a new industry.” In other words, as wired communications were migrating toward a wireless world, companies not only had to innovate, they also had to wage war against the existing power, AT&T. It was difficult enough to get a foothold in a fast-changing industry, and that difficulty was compounded by the need to play AT&T’s dirty game or risk failure. And in another similarity to today’s social upheaval, Olsen points out that at the time of this story, the late 60s and 70s, the country was also experiencing civil and economic unrest much like today. Olsen’s book shows how much the present resembles the past.
Olsen’s road to publication was not an easy one. It took much longer and was much more difficult than he expected. The writing process was easy, he said, compared to ferreting out people and information from the past. That took time and effort, including paying the Securities and Exchange Commission to locate and provide records from 50 years ago. Another surprise came from the publishing process itself. “I was really naïve,” Olsen said. “I figured I write the book, call a publisher to get it printed and distributed, and sit back and collect my portion of royalties.” He laughs and admits that there are more people and companies involved in publishing than he ever imagined and that the process was complicated and slow. He said he’s pleased with the final results though, a 334-page book published by Acorn Publishing and available in hardcover, paperback or electronically. He’s especially happy about the cover art created by Acorn, which harkens back to noir thrillers of the times past, with its muted colors and stark Manhattan skyline edged by fire.
Phone Warriors has received favorable reviews online and recognition from both strangers and friends. “Several neighbors came over with the book asking me to autograph it,” Olsen said. “A handful have actually called it a great book—I didn’t expect that.” He admitted he’s not yet sure how many copies have been sold, but acknowledged that any royalties will a bonus. His true satisfaction comes from seeing his book project through to fruition, he said. Now that it’s done, Olsen and his wife Susie plan to continue enjoying their golden years. And he can add one more bullet point to his long and successful career—best-selling author.
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