Books

A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 1846-1956

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The Invisible Empire provides the first overview of Canadian telecommunications, from the laying of the first telegraph line between Toronto and Hamilton in 1846 to the separation between Nortel - then known as Northern Electric - and the American Bell System in 1956.

It is impossible to understand Canada without looking at the history and development of its telecommunications industry. In the nineteenth century Canada was the only country in the world constructed on the basis of technology - first the railway and, in its shadow, telegraphy. In the 1930s this technological nationalism came of age and telecommunications became Canada's "national" technology. The Invisible Empire provides the first overview of Canadian telecommunications, from the laying of the first telegraph line between Toronto and Hamilton in 1846 to the separation between Nortel - then known as Northern Electric - and the American Bell System in 1956.


Introduction

The air we breathe is awash with electromagnetic waves; under the streets we walk is a torrent of underground copper and fibre-optics cables. The telecommunications network is everywhere, but most of it is beyond our purview. And yet, its technology pervades our work day, our entertainment evenings – in short, our entire life. It is in fact an invisible empire ruling over our information society.

When I wrote L’empire invisible, from 1989 to 1991, telecommunications was still a game for experts, mainly engineers and regulators. Decisions took place behind closed doors and rarely made the news, except for rate hikes. All consumers cared about was hearing the dial tone when they lifted their receiver. Telecommunications was indeed an “invisible” empire.

Everything changed with the 1992 electoral victory in the United States of President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore; Gore had used the “information superhighway” as a major plank in his platform. For the first time ever, telecommunications had become a major political topic. Almost simultaneously, in January, 1993, the Mosaic browser came on the market, allowing people access to the World Wide Web and the Internet that underlay it. From one day to the next, telecommunications became news. And it has remained news ever since.

Much of this book is about a world that has, for the most part, disappeared: telecommunications as a public service. The various ownership modes of Canadian telecommunications companies did not hide the fact that there was essentially no difference between private enterprise and Crown corporations in this sector: both were operating public services as regulated monopolies. Regulation was intended to mitigate the harmful effects of the monopoly by standing up for consumers and, to a lesser extent, business users.

When I began to write this book, I wanted to analyze a situation that seemed obvious at the time. Canada is a world leader in telecommunications. My fundamental question was: Why? Today, as a new world dawns, the symbol of which is the Internet, the issue seems even more important. Will telecommunications remain a significant industry in the information economy? Will Canada be a major player in the new power structure that is being formed?

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