My Telecoms Story

my_telecom_storyPeople frequently ask me about my background in Telecoms. How did I get started, where have I been, what have I done.  I decided to write my story as a blog post so that people could have a place to find it, and a single text which I might refine and improve over time.  If you want to add your own tales, please put them into the comments.

Welcome to Telecoms

My Telecoms story began when I moved to California in 1979. I needed a job and it I thought my incomplete studies as an Electrical Engineer might qualify me for a job with the telephone company. I applied and was fortunate to quickly be offered a position, one of the very best technical roles the phone company had.

The 1A ESS Cutover Crew

I was hired to work in a crew installing brand-new, state-of-the-art central office telephone switching equipment (aka “the switch”). The new switches were electronic, the #1A ESS. These were second generation computer-controlled telephone switches. The first generation electronic switch, the #1 ESS, had not been 100% electronic. “Memory cards” used to run programs in the #1 ESS were made of aluminum sheets about 20cm X 40cm, having 1024 magnetized spots. So each memory card was 1k memory!

The switches I worked on were second generation computer-controlled telephone switches. The #1A ESS Store Program Control Switch.  The switch included all the kit for delivering dial tone, ringing tone, recordings and announcements, billing calls, connecting calls to other offices, and all the test and diagnostics equipment. Back then, there were no computer servers: they had not been invented yet! The new switch was used to retire the old electro-mechanical equipment called step-by-step switches, and later, cross-bar switches. Pretty soon I was totally hooked on telecom.

My crew would work with the vendor, Western Electric, to install, test and commission the new 1A ESS switch, integrate it with the existing network, then, in a single dramatic gesture late one night, all the cables connecting the old equipment were physically cut using giant bolt cutters. There was no going back!

I recall one small project in 1983. The Program Store (PS) memory for the 1A ESS switch was 100% semiconductor memory. The project was to replace the current 64 kilobytes capacity cards with new, modern 256 kilobyte cards. I recall the discussions at the time. Although the old 64k cards were much more capacious than the #1ESS 1k aluminum cards, we wondered what the switch programmers could possibly have planned with that insane amount of new memory, 256kilobytes. It was 1983. There were still no PCs, so 256k seemed an incredible amount of memory.

This cutover work continued for about four years. I was lucky to get all the technical training for the #1A ESS which the company offered. Plus, I was often working the night shift with the vendor, which meant I got to work with the cleverest people Western Electric had. It gave me the chance to learn from the very best and it was a really great opportunity.

The DMS-100 Project

One day we were told that another new switch was coming along from Northern Telecom, the DMS-100. We were going to install them ourselves. This turned out to be another great opportunity because Northern Telecom had a very passive role. Northern Telecom provided only a single person, a project manager, to work on-site. All the actual work would be done by the team from my company.

One of the first DSM-100s we installed was in Pacific Beach, California, a small beach community near San Diego. I was given a supervisory role for the PB DMS-100 installation. The job began with a large, open floor space. We drilled holes in the floor, hauled the Northern Telecom 19” equipment racks into place, bolted them to the floor and to each other, ran all the switchboard and power cables, applied power, loaded software, tested and commissioned every system and finally turned it up into service.

One of the things I enjoyed most was playing around with this 7 million dollar telephone switch. Because for many months the switch would be live without being actually in service, I could perform tests and try out routines that were not possible to do on in-service switches. I became one of the company’s experts for this equipment. It felt good to be valued as an expert, but it was also just a lot of fun. I was free to learn as much as I wanted, it was up to me.

The SCC

We turned up 7 or 8 DMS-100s in San Diego county over the next couple years. When the overall DMS effort was finished I was assigned to work in the SCC, the Switching Control Center. Today it is commonly called the NOC or the OMC, the centralized location from where all the switches were monitored.

I worked an evening shift, 4 PM to midnight. The workload was not heavy, and it gave me time to explore one of the computers which was new for me, the 3B20 running AT&T UNIX. The 3B20 ran the SCC software for monitoring all the switches. I had never used UNIX before and was excited to learn. The UNIX System Administrator had never had anyone express any interest at all in what he did and was quite happy to have an apprentice. He really took me under his wing to teach me.

One of the key things he taught was that the best way to learn something is to have a practical task. So he gave me tasks and told me to figure out how to accomplish that task using the computer. Essentially, he taught UNIX shell programming. Given the relatively light workload during the evening shift, I was able to spend many hours on it. Pretty soon I was writing scripts automating routine SCC activities. I also got exposed to tools such as vi, ed, AWK, and SED. The scripts I developed were especially useful in the SCC because we monitored 15 DMS switches. When I wrote a single script, its impact was multiplied 15-fold. Outstanding!

Welcome to the Mobile Network

In 1989 I had the opportunity to move to the mobile side of the business. I was asked to help set up a new SCC for the mobile business. This SCC was called the Regional Operations Control Center, ROCC.  It monitored 3 Motorola EMX2500 switches and 400 or so Motorola Base Stations in the Los Angeles area. Here, I was exposed to my first Apple computer running Microsoft Excel. My UNIX Shell scripting experience helped, I was again able to automate some aspects of control center operation.

Europe

After only 1 year in the ROCC, the company won a license to build a new GSM network in Germany. I was asked to go to Germany and help set up the NMC/OMC. Working with the GSM Specifications was a familiar experience after years of following Bell System Practices.  Being in Germany and being in Europe were absolutely fascinating. Of course, the Telecoms was as enjoyable as ever, even more so.

Working with people from so many different countries with different ideas and experiences having so many different backgrounds was also exciting. One of the things I learned was that I enjoyed figuring out complex systems. In telecoms, Germany was my first exposure to GSM; in daily German life, I had to figure out how to buy products, take care of my personal business, navigate the trains and manage travel about Europe. Figuring these out were fun challenges.

My German assignment lasted only six months. When it ended I knew I would be back. I returned to work in California and over the next couple years had a couple different jobs in the mobile business, all the while trying to get back to international. It was during this time I began to learn Perl. As a scripting language, Perl was more powerful than the Bourne shell of 1991, and it came pre-installed on all the UNIX computers I was using during this time.

My luck returned and in 1993 I was rewarded when the company was asked to help Belgacom, the Belgian PTT, get their mobile network into service. This was my first truly multi-vendor environment. Belgacom had mobile switches from both Siemens and Ericsson, and base stations from Alcatel, Motorola, Ericsson, and Siemens. It was an enormously complex environment.  But again, great fun. My role in Belgium was to deploy IT systems in support of the Engineering team.

After a year and a half in Belgium, I had a brief stint in Sweden assessing a network operator which my company eventually acquired. Like most mobile operators, it had its own complex systems to get my head around. After that was another nationwide greenfield network build-out in Spain and then another in Poland.

Asia

It was around this time a friend tipped me off to a pre-sales support role for an American software company based in Singapore. I had been happy working in Europe. But I hadn’t spent much time in Asia.  So I said to myself “let the adventure continue.” Working in Singapore would allow me to see many new places and a presales support role would teach me some new skills.

I thought the opportunity to present to mobile operators throughout Asia would improve my public speaking and be an asset in my career. Which it was, allowing me to move on to a more senior operations role with another American software company based in Singapore. In 2002 that company was acquired by Hewlett-Packard and the Singapore office was closed and the staff, including myself, made redundant.

Siam WiFi

During the period I was unemployed I set up my own company in Bangkok, Thailand. Siam WiFi was Thailand’s first commercial Wi-Fi Hotspot network. This was a time before laptop computers had built-in Wi-Fi, which was a serious impediment. The cost of a third-party PCMCIA Wi-Fi card or dongle was prohibitive. Although we made some progress and got a few deals the business ran out of money before really getting traction.

The experience did give me a chance to learn front-end web development for the customer experience and back-end development for authentication and billing. I fell in love with mod_perl as a way to speed up dynamic websites and simplify complex user-facing programming challenges. I continue to use mod_perl to this day, even though these days Perl is not thought to be fashionable.

Hawaii

So in 2004, I found myself back in California working short-term contracts. In November of that year, I got the opportunity to build a new mobile network in Honolulu, Hawaii. After almost eight years working for software companies, it was a real joy to be working for an operator again.

Managing a wide variety of equipment and computers presents so many opportunities to use clever computing skills to make the network sing. My role during the initial build out was IT & Advanced Sytems Director, responsible for the LAN/WAN and Value Added Services.  Then in 2007 I became Network Engineering Director with responsibility for the switch, interconnect, backhaul, VAS, E911.

Working in Hawaii was initially intended to be only a 2-year gig, but ended up being 9 years. Hawaii is like that. It’s a wonderful place to be.

Guam

But that is much longer than anywhere else I’ve ever worked in my life. So when an opportunity came along to lead a complicated network on Guam I was excited to go. The Guam network included fixed, mobile 2G/4G GSM, 2G/3G CDMA, a 3.5G GSM overlay project was just getting started, mobile backhaul was delivered via microwave, fiber and leased, plus there also was an enterprise business and an international circuits business. Just about everything a Telecoms Engineers can imagine.

Making it even more interesting, much of the equipment had not routinely been aged and retired, so there were active, revenue-generating services using equipment that was EOL without vendor support. Add in the occasional typhoon and it’s a real handful. My team was 75 Engineers, Technicians, IT Professionals, Networking Experts, Database Administrators, Software Developers. Having a lifelong fascination with complex systems, I was in heaven!

Thailand

But my time on Guam ended a couple years later when I decided to return to Thailand to spend more time with my family.  I’ve been here now for a couple years. Thailand is a  wonderful destination for tourists. If you’ve never been, I strongly encourage you to visit.

Thai Telecoms are something else entirely.  Telecoms here are somewhat victimized by the current difficult political situation. This causes much regulatory uncertainty and complicates long-term business planning.   Hiring laws can also make it difficult to hire foreigners.  So I do most of my Telecoms these days from the sidelines or in other countries.

That’s my story.  Feel free to enter your own tales in the comments.

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