Wireless Nation: The Frenzied Launch Of The Cellular Revolution

Wireless Nation: The Frenzied Launch Of The Cellular Revolution

by James B. Murray, Lisa Dickey


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Wireless Nation: The Frenzied Launch Of The Cellular Revolution by James B. Murray, Lisa Dickey

"Highly recommended."—Library JournalThe wireless industry was built by a motley band of characters who, from the beginning, have fought unrelentingly against one another for a cut of the business. It's a surprising history full of winners, losers, and lucky first-time entrepreneurs who made millions.Written by industry insider James B. Murray, Jr., Wireless Nation chronicles the unique development of the wireless industry and the protagonists who brought it to life. In the mix is the inimitable entrepreneur Craig McCaw, MCI Chairman William McGowan, John Kluge of Metromedia, and also Peter Lewis, a former Army officer and cellular business pioneer whose career ended in disgrace when he finally bent the rules a little too far. Murray tells the story as only an insider can, detailing the incredible circumstances—not to mention the greatest government boondoggle of our time—that shaped and defined the coming century's most promising business. It is a must-read for anyone interested in new technology and the American business landscape.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780738206882
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 11/01/2002
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.08(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.94(d)

About the Author

James B. Murray, Jr., was an early investor in and broker of cellular telephone licenses. A co-founder of Columbia Capital Corporation, a venture capital firm now managing assets in excess of 1.5 billion, Mr. Murray currently directs Court Square Ventures, a venture capital firm specializing in telecommunications and information-technology investments. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Read an Excerpt

You Could Be a Winner!

Bob Pelissier couldn't sleep.

It was 1 a.m., and the velvet-black night pressed against the windows of Pelissier's ranch-style home in Redwood City, California. He'd been feeling ill all day—nothing serious, just a slight fever and a cough—and as he lay in bed he slowly gave into the realization that sleep was unlikely to come.

He got up and made his way into the living room, pausing to flip on the TV before sinking into his favorite chair. As he settled his six-foot-two-inch frame into his recliner, a familiar face materialized on the screen: Talk show host Mike Douglas, an icon of '70s television, was midpitch in a late-night infomercial.

"Cellular technology, an unprecedented breakthrough in telecommunications, can and will change the life styles of millions," Douglas announced. "Some prominent financial experts have heralded it as one of the greatest business opportunities, not only in your lifetime, but of the century!"

It was the fall of 1985, and Pelissier, a fifty-six-year-old truck driver with more than thirty-five years behind the wheel, had never heard of a cellular telephone before. Mildly intrigued, he watched as Douglas continued his pitch. "There are estimates indicating that in the future, 40 percent of all telephone communications will involve cellular mobile telephones," Douglas declared, "and cellular may even substantially replace the wire telephone system we now use. According to a recent AT&T report, higher profits are projected for cellular than any other communications technology in history."

But the real pitch was yet to come: "You and I," Douglas announced, "have an equal opportunity to compete with the corporate giants for a piece of the multibillion-dollar pie!" The U.S. government, a voice-over went on to explain, was holding a lottery to give away licenses to run cell phone systems—licenses that were worth a whole lot of money, perhaps millions of dollars. Anyone could send money in, buy a chance in the lottery, and possibly win big.

"What a bunch of bull," thought Pelissier, and changed the channel.

A few nights later, Pelissier again couldn't sleep. He made his way to the living room and switched on the TV, and as the screen flickered to life, he once again saw Mike Douglas making his pitch. This time, Pelissier watched a bit longer, and he found his curiosity rising. Was there anything to this? Was it true that anyone in America could enter and win this lottery, and be handed these licenses for free? If they were so valuable, why would the government just give them away? There had to be a catch, he thought. Now as intrigued as he was skeptical, Pelissier pondered Douglas's words before drifting off to sleep.

A week passed before Pelissier again found himself wandering into the living room late at night. This time he didn't stumble upon the Mike Douglas ad—this time, he flipped around the channels until he found it. Pelissier suddenly got an inexplicable gut feeling. He picked up a pen and jotted down the number shown on the screen.

A few phone calls later, Pelissier—a man with a high-school education and no business experience—found himself facing a young sales associate on the sixth floor of a nondescript building in San Mateo, California. It couldn't be easier, the salesman told him, to take a chance in the big cellular giveaway. There were no requirements other than willingness to take a risk, and the ability to pay for it.

For $100,000, the young man explained, Pelissier could have what amounted to a handful of lottery tickets: applications to win the cellular license for one of fifteen markets the Federal Communications Commission planned to lottery off in April 1986. These were licenses to run cellular systems for cities like Pensacola, Florida; Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Santa Barbara, California—the licenses for bigger cities had been given out earlier, and those for even smaller cities were yet to come.

If a lottery number assigned to one of Pelissier's applications got chosen, he'd own the majority share of a city's license—50.01 percent. The other 49.99 percent would be owned by a vast alliance comprised of dozens, even hundreds of other applicants solicited by the salesman and his company, part of a convoluted scheme to make sure everyone could win at least a small fraction of a license.

For his $100,000 fee, Pelissier would be part of that alliance too, meaning he'd share in that 49.99 percent if another member of his alliance pool won a market. The pitch sounded compelling: Even if Pelissier didn't end up winning the majority piece of a license himself, he still had a good chance of winning at least a small fraction—and the payoff, the salesman assured him, would be worth many times the investment. Cell phones were the wave of the future, and these cellular licenses were as good as gold—even if you only owned a tiny percentage of one.

Was it all a scam? Pelissier was intrigued by talk of million-dollar payoffs, but he was wary of laying out so much money. These guys could just be quick-buck artists, ready to make money off gullible investors like himself. On the other hand, how could this be a scam if Mike Douglas—a trusted TV personality, a man Americans had welcomed into their living rooms every day for twenty years—was lending his name to it? It couldn't be, Pelissier decided. There must really be something to it.

But the $100,000 price tag was too much. After thinking it over, Pelissier asked a few friends to join him in a partnership and split the cost, but no one was willing to take the risk—a risk they told Pelissier he was crazy to take. This was serious money, after all, and what in the world did Pelissier—a man who'd driven a truck his whole life—know about cellular phones? What would he do if he didn't win? And, even more worrisome, what would he do if he did?

"Something keeps telling me to do this," he told his wife, Lorraine. At age fifty-four, Lorraine worked as hard as her husband did—she owned her own little catering truck, a specially rigged vehicle out of which she sold sandwiches, sodas, potato chips, candy bars and other snacks. She was on the road each morning by 5 a.m., driving her truck—Bob called it her "roach coach" —to a construction site or across the street from a school, where she'd sell her snacks for twelve solid hours before heading home in the evenings.

Though he'd never gambled on anything bigger than charity raffle tickets, Pelissier made a decision: He wanted in on the cellular lottery. He and Lorraine didn't have that kind of money in their bank account, though, so the couple would be forced to borrow it. With the applications' filing date fast approaching, they had to hurry: They quickly arranged a home-equity loan, and Pelissier presented the salesman with a check for $37,500. That amount would buy him one-quarter of a partnership ($25,000), with the remaining $12,500 tacked on to cover something called "associated filing costs," related to the bigger alliance Pelissier would be part of.

The salesman set him up with the two other men who were to be his partners—a wealthy octogenarian and an Iranian-born structural engineer, neither of whom Pelissier had met before. His two partners didn't want to be burdened with any paperwork or phone calls, so Pelissier agreed to be the point man for the little partnership.

A few weeks earlier, Bob Pelissier had heard the words "cellular telephone" for the first time. Now, based on a late-night infomercial, he had bet tens of thousands of dollars, entered a partnership with people he didn't know, and declared himself able to finance, build and run a highly technical, multimillion-dollar telephone company. The lottery drawing was to be held in two and a half months, on April 21, 1986. More than 8,000 applications had been filed for the fifteen markets up for grabs; these were expensive lottery tickets, and with the flood of applications, the chances of winning a license outright weren't good. Now all Pelissier could do was wait.

The day of the lottery drawing, Pelissier stayed home in California, tending his roses and puttering around the house. He figured he'd end up with a modest windfall from the small fractions of license ownership he'd get when someone else in the massive alliance won something. It might not be a huge payoff, but hopefully he'd at least break even.

The phone rang. When Pelissier picked it up, a woman on the other end of the line told him, "You've won." Pelissier and his partners had won the license for the market covering Manchester and Nashua, New Hampshire, a quiet New England metropolitan area with a combined population of 277,000. More than 500 applications had been filed for Manchester-Nashua and, remarkably, Pelissier's little three-man partnership was the one whose lucky Ping-Pong balls were drawn from the lottery drum.

"Thanks," said Pelissier, with only marginal enthusiasm. He had misunderstood. He thought the nice young woman meant that the big alliance had won, and so he figured his share would be, as the salesman had explained, a little less than 1 percent. He thought that perhaps, with luck, that tiny percentage might be worth the $37,500 he'd invested. Or it might not. He thanked the woman for calling and hung up.

A moment later, she called again. "I don't think you understand what I meant," she told Pelissier, who thought her voice sounded like she was suppressing a smile. He and his partners had won the license, she told him. They needed to have a cell phone company up and running in six months. As blood began to pound excitedly in Pelissier's veins, he heard the woman say one more thing: "You should get an FCC attorney."

Just like that, the unlikely California trio of a middle-aged trucker, an elderly gambler and a highway engineer became the new owners of a cellular license for the towns of Manchester and Nashua, New Hampshire. Now they had a cellular telephone company to build—a company that would be competing for customers with an established telephone company.

"Oh boy," thought Bob Pelissier, "What do we do now..."

Table of Contents

Part 1
1You Could Be a Winner!1
2At the Starting Gate6
3The Long and Wireless Road14
4The Players29
5The Rounds and the Fury49
6The Wheeling and Dealing Begins62
7The Boys' Club72
8Le Grand Deal85
9The Big Monopoly Game95
10The Exodus Begins107
Part 2
11The Truck Driver Transforms127
12Take the Money and Run129
13The Rush Is On144
14Pig Farmers and Hairdressers162
15A Hustle Here, a Hustle There179
16Mortgaging the House of Cards189
17Catching the Third Wave209
18Last Call at the Casino216
Part 3
19The Nationwide Footprint231
20The Next Big Thing251
21Going, Going, Gone267
22Everybody's Got One278
23After the Gold Rush289

What People are Saying About This

Richard T. Liebhaber

Jim Murray brings us colorful and candid insight into the gold rush days of the wild and wooly wireless revolution. With its hair-raising twists and suspenseful Grisham-like prose, he makes Barbarians at the Gates seem like a bedtime story. For any student of the American entrepreneurial genius, this is an example of the transformation of a technological artifact into a ubiquitous tool for society. Murray shows us how it happened, and more importantly, who made it happen. You can not put it down!
—Richard T. Liebhaber, Former Chief Technology Officer, MCI


Author Essay
Imagine the U.S. government announcing it will give away $500 billion, in chunks of $10 to $50 million each. Not only that, but it will distribute the money completely at random, through a lottery system. Would you file a form to get in on the giveaway? Fifteen years ago, the government did that very thing, and hundreds of ordinary Americans -- from truck drivers to preachers to secretaries -- entered the lottery and ended up millionaires.

The story of the big giveaway -- the government distribution of invaluable cellular telephone system licenses across the U.S. -- was so remarkable, so unbelievable, that those of us who found ourselves in the midst of it were often amazed. "Somebody ought to write a book about this stuff," we'd say to each other. Well, when no one else seemed willing, I decided to give it a try.

While I'd tried my hand at journalism in school, I never considered myself more than a journeyman writer, at best. My lack of skill was compounded by the difficulty of the task and the fact that I couldn't give up a full-time career in venture capital. Very little of what I wanted to write about was available at the library or online. It would eventually take hundreds of hours of first-person interviews and five years (I'd naively budgeted just one) to assemble the information, to sort through hundreds of pages of laboriously written material, and to put the story together.

In the end, Wireless Nation might never have made it into print if I hadn't gotten a lot of help. I began by hiring a young researcher, who was later succeeded by a second, third, and fourth fact-finder. Then faced with 2,000 pages of rough draft, I brought in Lisa Dickey, a terrific writer, to help me fashion it into a readable story. We struggled together (and sometimes fought) over every word, but the end product was worth the effort.

Wireless Nation is a book about a uniquely American history. It is the tale of a government boondoggle of monumental proportions that created an economic rarity: an inefficient market where neither buyers nor sellers knew the value of what was being traded -- though all knew millions might be at stake. I hope the story is as fascinating for others to read as it was for me to live and to write about. (James B. Murray)

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Wireless Nation: The Frenzied Launch of the Cellular Revolution 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Spontaneous_Reader More than 1 year ago
I had to read Wireless Nation for my class and it was a boring book. I have looked at many reviews and most of them say that it is for people interested in being an entrepreneur. This is true. If you are looking for a book that pulls you in and you can't put it down, then this book is not for you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago