ase Study: Boom and Bust in Telecommunications
In 1997 Michael O'Dell, the chief scientist at World-Com, which owned the largest network of “Internet backbone” fiber optic cable in the world, stated that data traffic over the Internet was doubling every hundred days. This implied a growth rate of over 1,000 percent a year. O'Dell went on to day that there was not enough fiber optic capacity to go around, and that “demand will far outstrip supply for the foreseeable future.”
Electrified by this potential opportunity, a number of companies rushed into the business. These firms included Level 3 Communications, 360 Networks, Global Crossing, Qwest Communications, World-Com, Williams Communications Group, Genuity Inc., and XO Communications. In all cases the strategic plans were remarkably similar: Raise lots of capital, build massive fiber optic networks that straddled the nation (or even the globe), cut prices, and get ready for the rush of business. Managers at these companies believed that surging demand would soon catch up with capacity, resulting in a profit bonanza for those that had the foresight to build out their networks. It was a gold rush, and the first into the field would stake the best claims.
However, there were dissenting voices. As early as October 1998 an Internet researcher at AT&T Labs named Andrew Odlyzko published a paper that de-bunked the assumption that demand for Internet traffic was growing at 1,000 percent a year. Odlyzko’s careful analysis concluded that growth was much slower—only 100 percent a year! Although still large, that growth rate was not nearly large enough to fill the massive flood of fiber optic capacity that was entering the market. Moreover, Odlyzko noted that new technologies were increasing the amount of data that could be sent down existing fibers, reducing the need for new fiber. But with investment money flooding into the market, few paid any attention to him. WorldCom was still using the 1,000 percent figure as...
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