Change comes faster than the now-defunct Corncorde sometimes, a fact that I was reminded of this week reading of the quite rational fear by professional drivers of autonomous vehicles (see New York transportation group seeks 50-year ban on driverless cars). I spent the better part of four decades helping large organizations manage change, and it can be gut-wrenching, or it can be almost painless.
In the end, though, all change is inevitable, and it’s better to be part of the solution. Resistance to change such as an arbitrary ban is futile, and in the driver case, Quixotic, but I understand the fear. No one has yet figured out how to bridge drivers into the brave new world of driverless cars and trucks. On the very next day after reading this article, however, I learned of a different way to work through radical change impacting one’s profession.
It happened unexpectedly when a 25 year old AT&T technician spent four hours at our house installing AT&T’s “Gigabit” fiber optic service. His managers, he told me calmly, had frankly informed his entire AT&T team of installers and tech staff that their jobs would likely be eliminated within 3-7 years because AT&T will by then be entirely wireless, even for highest speed Internet service. AT&T expects their wired network to soon become obsolete, first the copper network, which they intend to sell to a third party like Frontier, and then a few years later the fiber optic network would also be sold off.
The entire cadre of highly-skilled technicians are already planning for other jobs, even other professions. They have been told what the future looks like, and it doesn’t include maintaining and servicing a complex hard-wired grid of copper and fiber lines. My tech was not at all alarmed. Instead, he was glad to see the runway he had, and he was already planning to go back to school to learn new skills in a new field. He said the majority of other team members were doing the same.
I thought that was smart and civilized on AT&T’s part to give them 3-7 years notice that their jobs will go the way of Uber, taxi, and truck drivers: obsolete. Neither the AT&T tech team nor the company is planning to resist the change. Instead, they are adapting now to be ready for the inevitable future. That’s what professional drivers should be doing.
After all, it’s happened many times before. Livery stable owners, blacksmiths, and buggy whip manufacturers all found new ways to earn money during the great change from organic horse to metallic horse between 1900 and 1910. Steam locomotives entirely gave way to diesels in railroading between the late 30s and 1960, gutting tens of thousands of highly specialized pressure vessel and machine parts jobs. The advent of safe and reliable air transport killed the transatlantic steamship business and all its employees and shipbuilders (for a fascinating read, I highly recommend “The Only Way To Cross: The Golden Age of great Atlantic express liners” by John Maxtone-Graham).
And on and on. The state of AI legal research and interpretation may soon make many legal jobs redundant. Ditto for programming itself: AI systems will do much of the work, and the tech sector is planning for the elimination of many programmers (e.g., and just one of scores of similar articles, see here).
A footnote to the AT&T story is that Google Fiber, which has been until recently furiously laying its own private fiber network here in Raleigh, stopped all at once. It now plans to offer Google Fiber service in Raleigh only where it already has cable in the ground because Google has begun to adapt, as AT&T has, to the new reality of an entirely wireless ISP future.
What’s going to replace wired ISP networks? Apparently, an entirely new technology (see this article). New means for distributing Internet without wires are already being piloted in some locales, such as in the greater DC area. Comcast-Xfinity-AT&T are working on it there. At this point it is not speed as much as it is about geographic coverage. Xfinity recently replaced free of charge whole Arlington (VA) neighborhoods of Comcast-Xfinity-AT&T in-residence modems/routers. Turns out that the new devices serve not only as private modems/routers, but they also transmit, though (I am told) on a different channel/frequency. Thus the new devices act as a WiFi hub to customers within its geographic reach.
Once customers within the area download the appropriate Xfinity app, it sets up a security regimen that separates individual Xfinity accounts from the public Xfinity account. This feature is currently available only for Xfinity-AT&T customers. Bottom line is that customers in that catchment area are beginning to have pretty seamless WiFi service in Arlington and downtown DC. As mentioned at the outset, speed is not the issue at this point; broad WiFi coverage is. Speed is supposed to come incrementally via wireless transmission later and be incorporated into the already networked area.
All these fast Internet speeds and how we get it now bubbling into our lives made me wonder: What impact will these changes have on business travel? Too early to tell, but as fiber optic speeds (gigabit and better), regardless of means of transmission, become normalized widely across the country, will video-conferencing and virtual meetings become more effective, accepted practice, and routine than they have been? If so, will we travel less on business? Business travel—airfares, hotel stays, rental cars—has become horribly expensive, and the cost of such ultra-high speed Internet service is dropping like a stone. The travel industry doesn’t seem to be paying much attention yet, though, even as costs skyrocket.
I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s worth pondering pretty seriously. Something’s got to give, probably sooner than later.
Some fun history in closing as we contemplate the widespread, often unexpected, change that results from a more and more wireless world: Why are the poles in your neighborhood that carry wires for power and communication called telephone poles? It is because Alexander Graham Bell got to market with the telephone before Thomas Alva Edison and other electric transmission pioneers were ready to distribute and sell electricity. The Bell System phone company already had poles in place by then, and Edison and others rented space on existing telephone poles to carry the first electric transmission lines. For a deeper dive into the dark doings of Edison in the late 19th century that led to our AC standard of electricity, I recommend this page-turner for your next flight delay.