- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

On Jan. 19, 1979, almost two years to the day before he became president, Ronald Reagan delivered a radio commentary about “the phone company,” the old American Telephone & Telegraph combine that held all the elements of telephony in this country, from local service to long distance to equipment.

Mr. Reagan noted that a federal antitrust suit against AT&T; apparently ignored the relatively low cost of a coast-to-coast phone call: $1.30 a minute in 1979 versus $9.50 in the 1930s. Phone service, he said, was private and affordable, unlike his earlier experience with the family’s Depression-era “party line” phone.

“Today,” he said then, according to the book “Reagan, In His Own Hand” (Free Press), “the miracles we already have are going to be topped by [the] video phone; there are recorder gadgets to take phone calls and messages when you are absent, and now they talk of electronic mail. If the cost differential continues at the present rate, it is possible the telephone may put the Post Office out of business within the next 10 or 20 years.”

Things unfolded a bit differently than Mr. Reagan envisioned. Video phones are by no means commonplace, but what did unfold owed a lot to Ronald Reagan, his political philosophy and his actions.

During the 1980s, it was the Reagan administration that oversaw the divestiture of AT&T;’s local phone units. That began a wave of change in America’s phone network that led to lower prices for phone service. Lower phone costs helped spur the growth of companies like CompuServe and America Online, paving the way for today’s Internet.

The Reagan White House was the first to use personal computers on a large scale, along with e-mail, the latter coming back to haunt some staffers during the Iran-Contra investigation.

The first IBM PCs rolled off assembly lines in August 1981, eight months after Mr. Reagan’s inaugural, and at a time when substantial tax cuts for individuals and businesses came along. Those cuts helped make PCs affordable. An improving economy also led many into software and hardware development and gave birth to companies that eventually dominated the field.

There was also the public side of his involvement: In 1985, Mr. Reagan presented the National Medal of Technology to Apple Computer co-founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, for “their development and introduction of the personal computer.” He also lauded data-processing pioneer Grace Murray Hopper on her promotion from captain to commodore in the U.S. Naval Reserve, hosting an Oval Office ceremony for her in 1983.

Mr. Reagan didn’t start a telecommunications revolution by himself, of course. In 1987, he named a then-36-year-old attorney, Dennis R. Patrick, to chair the Federal Communications Commission. Mr. Patrick, his predecessor Mark Fowler, and FCC colleagues such as Patricia Diaz Dennis and James Quello were at the vanguard of regulating new services and markets, opening the field for hundreds of companies and thousands of workers.

It wasn’t the telephone, but rather the data that traveled over deregulated and divested telephone circuits, that challenged the postal monopoly and changed our lives. While the daily mail is still a part of American life, the digital revolution got a major push from the actions of a former radio commentator named Ronald Reagan.

E-mail MarkKel@aol.com or visit www.kellner.us.

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