First-Hand:I Was Fired
Submitted by A. Michael Noll
March 31, 2022
I was not happy when my director-level boss at Bell Labs came to my office to tell me that I had 6 months to leave – I was fired. That was because my views on the future of AT&T and the Bell System did not agree with the official story. This was the mid 1970s, and whistle-blowers had no protection.
I had recently returned to Bell Labs after two years in Washington at the Office of Science and Technology at the Executive Office of the President. During my time ay OST working for the President’s Science Advisor, I came to see the evils of the Bell System as it monopolized not only service but also the very telephones in customer homes. I was told of cases where telephone company employees came into homes to seize and remove telephones that were not made by Western Electric and supplied by the local Bell Company. AT&T made the self-serving claim that a non-Bell phone could collapse the entire network. It was also claimed that business service rates were kept high by about a two-to-one margin to subsidize residential service.
In the 1970s, the government was investigating telecommunication competition and threatening to break up the Bell System. AT&T urged the employees of the Bell System to write their elective representative. Of course, AT&T expected its employees to support the Bell monopoly.
I wondered whether business really subsidized residential service. There were no real facts – just the claims by AT&T that this was so. Therefore I did a back-of-the-envelope estimation. Business phones were used about four times as much as residential phones. That meant four-times more repair trips, four-limes more line finders at the central office, four-times more trunks. The cost differential should thus be about four to one – not two to one. Thus, residential service subsidized business service! I wrote a short report on my analysis, and sent a copy to my elected representatives in Washington. Somehow, AT&T found out and put pressure on my senior management at Bell Labs to get rid of me. Rather than defend my freedom, the management at Bell Labs caved to the AT&T pressure – and I was fired.
I had, however, had started helping some former Bell Labs people who were now working in AT&T Marketing to investigate new forms of two-way visual telecommunication. We collaborated well, and I was transferred to AT&T from Bell Labs. I worked there on video teleconferencing, text terminals, and videotex information service. Ultimately, I ended up in AT&T Consumer Products, from which I retired to become a professor at the USC Annenberg School, where I spent the next 25 years.
Careers have unexpected and interesting twists and turns. Being fired from Bell Labs in the end resulted in a rewarding academic career for me – in the warmth of sunny Southern California.