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Phenomenal growth and emerging technologies combine to create ample career opportunities

By Janet Anderson

On a national and a global scale, the telecommunications industry has grown like a jungle. While new companies_and career opportunities_spring up like Jack's beanstalk, older companies intertwine with each other like vines for mutual support and nourishment.

"The communications and information sector of our economy leads all other sectors in job growth and the development of new products and services," says Commissioner Susan Ness of the FCC. In the United States, the overall telecommunications market (equipment and services) grew by more than 11% in 1997, generating revenues of $406.7 billion. Spending on telecom equipment grew a vigorous 13% to $106.4 billion, while services, accounting for about 75% of the 1997 revenue total, posted an 11% increase to $300.3 billion. Annual global spending on telecom services, already $726 billion, is expected to grow to $1 trillion by 2001.

What's inspiring this amazing growth? Some factors include:

  • the need to transmit larger volumes of information electronically
  • increased spending (on equipment, research, etc.) by small and medium-sized telecom companies
  • the search for cost-effective solutions for telecommunications issues and problems
  • an expanding international market

The companies at the forefront of this flourishing industry are household names: AT&T is the world's largest long-distance and data communications company; the recently merged MCI WorldCom comes in second, with Sprint in third place. The local telephone markets are not far behind. Of the eight regional "Baby" Bell companies, only four now remain: Ameritech, in eight midwestern states; Bell Atlantic, whose recent merger with NYNEX and probable future merger with GTE will give it a customer base of most of the Northeastern seaboard; BellSouth, based in Atlanta and serving a nine-state region encompassing the Southeast; and US West, with customers in 14 western and midwestern states. GTE has a strong 28-state customer base and wireless, networking and international holdings.

Any attempt to tell the players apart—with or without scorecards—must take into account the frenzied mating rituals within this corporate jungle. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was intended to deregulate the market and increase competition. Instead, telecom companies have been buying new access to customers and existing networks by buying each other, in what has been called "merger mania"_$77 billion worth of mergers in 1996. Of the ten most lucrative U.S. corporate mergers of all time, three are recent telecom transactions: Bell Atlantic and NYNEX ($22.7 billion), WorldCom and MCI ($37 billion), and Ameritech and SBC ($62 billion). (SBC had itself only recently purchased Pacific Telesis.)

In June 1998, AT&T bought Teleport Communications Group, Inc., and announced plans to merge with Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI). AirTouch Communications, Inc., acquired the domestic wireless operations of US West Media Group, making AirTouch second only to AT&T as a U.S. wireless provider. Bellcore, established in 1984 to provide engineering and other services to the regional Bells, was sold in 1997 to Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), a diversified high-tech company based in San Diego.


AT&T's first response to the Telecommunications Act was to divide, not conquer. In order to compete more efficiently, it split into three enterprises in 1996. AT&T continued to concentrate on telecommunications, while the newly created Lucent Technologies (including Bell Laboratories) specialized in communications equipment and NCR Corp. in computer manufacturing. This year, the Denver-based US West followed AT&T's example and split in two. US West Communications remains a 14-state phone company, while the US West Media Group offers combined television, Internet and phone services over cable lines in markets such as Atlanta, Boston and Detroit.

Also in Denver, Qwest Communications International acquired long-distance carrier LCI International. "Colorado's telecommunications industry has become a national landmark," says the Denver Post. "On last year's Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans, four Coloradans named are all involved in the telecom sector: Philip Anschutz of Qwest; John C. Malone of Tele-Communications Inc.; Kenneth D. Tuchman of TeleTech, a phone services firm; and ge salary for an engineer entering the telecommunications job market depends upon that engineer's specialty. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, an electrical engineer might expect a salary of services and Bell Atlantic's local and wireless phone service. "A telecommunications colossus for the 21st century," according to The Wall Street Journal, the merger could take as long as 18 months to close, and faces strict scrutiny from regulators who are increasingly unhappy with the merger mania.


The industry's growth is also fueled by constantly emerging technologies. For example, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have learned how to control the chaotic fluctuations in light intensity produced by certain laser systems. These fluctuations could be used to encode information being transmitted from one laser to another through fiber optic cable. Lucent Technologies has developed a system that can transmit as many as 400 billion bits of data per second over a single strand of fiber. The new system can transmit as many as 3.2 trillion bits of data a second, "the equivalent of 90,000 encyclopedia volumes in one second," says The Wall Street Journal.

Soon to be available are new technologies that will link users to the Net at speeds as much as 250 times faster than standard modems. According to Business Week, by 2001, nearly 80% of U.S. households will have fast access at hand, up from 15% today, through digital subscriber line (DSL) service, which uses advanced electronics to send data over conventional telephone wires. While today's modems top out at 56,000 bits per second, DSL devices will be able to send data at up to seven million bits per second. Invented a decade ago by Bellcore, this new technology is backed by Microsoft, Intel, Compaq, Bell Atlantic, US West, Hughes Electronic Corp., Ameritech and many cable companies. The increased access to such technology will result in greater profits and more jobs in the telecommunications industry.

The wireless-phone industry and the cable industry have both benefited from new technology. There are over 50 million wireless phone users in the United States alone, with a total of 180 million wireless customers worldwide. Competition is especially keen in this sector, with AT&T, Sprint PCS (a consortium of cable operators led by Sprint) and PrimeCo Personal Communications (a joint venture of BellSouth, AirTouch and Bell Atlantic) as three of the major players. Nokia, the world's second largest manufacturer of mobile phones, makes an effort to maintain a cutting edge; according to its web page, one out of every four of its employees works in Research and Development. Cable and satellite systems such as Iridium (a consortium led by Motorola), Teledesic (backed by Bill Gates as well as the company's owner, Craig McCaw), Globalstar Telecommunications, Qualcomm and AirTouch now reach even the remotest areas.


And what are the career opportunities amid all this growth?

The mighty AT&T is trimming jobs, not hiring; it's expected to lose between 15,000 and 18,000 positions over the next two years. There is one exception: sales and marketing positions are available, probably driven by AT&T's intense competition to keep and improve its customer base.

Computer science and software engineering degrees are especially in demand at Sprint, Bellcore, GTE, Bell Atlantic, BellSouth, SBC and US West. Other desirable fields include electrical engineering, computer engineering, systems engineering, digital engineering, communications engineering, quality control engineering and network/design engineering. SBC specifies that its information systems employees must know UNIX and its software engineers must know Java and/or COBOL. Bellcore also expresses interest in mathematics degrees and "business knowledge."

Another Bellcore specification is a desire to travel and knowledge of a foreign language. A foreign language will probably give a job seeker an edge with any telecommunications companies, most of which are reaching out to the global market. Since 1994, Sprint has joined in partnerships with Deutsche Telecom (Germany), France Telecom and Telefonos de Mexico. Similarly, AT&T recently announced a partnership with British Telecom in a $10 billion venture to provide communications services for multinational companies. For its part, BellSouth is noted for its strong Latin American investments.

The average salary for an engineer entering the telecommunications job market depends upon that engineer's specialty. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, an electrical engineer might expect a salary of $40,00 or more, with the possibility of as much as $60,000 with a specialization in computers or communications technology. Computer engineers and computer scientists might also receive salaries in the $40,000 range. Systems engineers may receive from $44,000 to $53,000 for those specializing in software and data processing. Those with information science degrees lagged behind slightly with starting salaries of between $35,000 and $38,000.

Janet Anderson was an editorial assistant for Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers.

future of your fieldtelecommunications

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