Book Review: ‘Wireless Nation’

Reprinted from National Journal
By K. Daniel Glover

Once upon a time in America, a backward people communicated via a quaint device called the telephone. Though their lot in life surpassed that of the telephone-pole-climbing country folk of Green Acres lore, the technology of the day still required them to dial a place rather than a person.

Then came the enlightenment of the cellular revolution, when entrepreneurial prophets preached the gospel of wire-free telephony and persuaded the government to part with precious airwaves. Now, less than two decades after the first commercial cell phone system went online in Chicago, nearly 110 million Americans never leave home without their “personal communication systems.” They talk in the car, in the mall, on the street, even from airplanes. Meanwhile, the masterminds who made it all possible bask in their wealth.

So goes the story line of “Wireless Nation: The Frenzied Launch of the Cellular Revolution in America.” And what a story it is. Although his celebratory tone may sound a bit odd in light of recent telecommunications news, James B. Murray Jr. masterfully captures the history of an industry that made him and dozens of other business executives rich.

The book’s structure is aggravating at times. The opening pages, for example, recount the tale of a truck driver who risked thousands of dollars for a chance in the government’s 1980s spectrum giveaway. Not until more than 150 pages later, however, do readers learn that Bob Pelissier, and other common folk like him, made millions of dollars from their investments. It is akin to reading a front-page story in a newspaper without being told what page to flip to for the rest of the article.

That organizational issue aside, Murray’s tome, part anti-Washington screed and part corporate success story, is an engaging read. Replete with exhaustively detailed scenes, a wacky cast of characters, intriguing plot twists and a climax that few telecommunications “experts” imagined, it reads more like a collection of short stories than a work of nonfiction.

In fact, the utter unpredictability of the cellular revolution is a central theme of the book. Plagued by arrogance, a lack of vision and other shortcomings, the companies that were best positioned to excel during the nation’s communications transformation tanked; the upstarts, meanwhile, scored coup after commercial coup, buying and selling their way to the top of the telecom ladder.

Some of the seemingly surest bets, such as Western Union, ultimately went bankrupt. Even AT&T, the company that invented cellular technology, stumbled out of the gate.