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In Telecom, The Route to a Regional Identity

From the Bergen Record,
Friday, November 20, 1998
Lead Story, Business Section


Greetings from the Telecommunications Turnpike. It seems many endeavors, world class or regional, beg for a home field, a place to sit squarely on some type of map, geographical or otherwise.

Wall Street is the mecca of financial markets. Madison Avenue is the hotbed of creative advertising. Silicon Valley is the celebrated locus of emerging technology.

Not to be left out, there is a call to make New Jersey synonymous with telecommunications.

And why not choose the turnpike -- the nationally renowned butt of "what exit?" jokes, that 148-mile madcap macadam with resplendent refinery farm vistas, gaseous swamps, and looming landfills?

If regional identity takes shape as the Telecommunications Turnpike, David Isenberg, a consultant with in Westfield, will be credited or blamed for its creation.

Isenberg, along with the Advanced Telecommunications Institute of Stevens Institute of Technology, is attempting to pull the telecom community together by hosting a series of industry gatherings at the Hoboken university.

It was Isenberg's idea to let the turnpike's infamous and widespread notoriety work for the cause. The turnpike works, Isenberg said, because of its "analogy with the information superhighway and also the sense of connecting people all over the state."

But some experts in the regional identity business don't think attempts to turn the blighted thoroughfare into a positive namesake are a good idea.

"I don't see the fun in it," said Maxine Ballen of the New Jersey Technology Council. "All it does is reinforce the fact that people here in New Jersey are all about turnpikes, and where does that take us?"

Tongue-in-cheek or serious, Isenberg and Patricia Morreale, director of the Advanced Telecommunications Institute, say the intention is to foster an awareness of New Jersey's stature in global telecommunications. And envy of the critical mass Silicon Valley has achieved among the technology-minded is at the core of this effort.

For decades, Murray Hill research titan Bell Labs, with 11 Nobel laureates, had been the center of technological discovery. Its prominence was eclipsed in the mid-Eighties by a shift from corporate laboratory research to garage-type innovations associated with Silicon Valley.

To draw on another bicoastal parallel with Silicon Valley, the Stevens Institute of Technology is jostling to be the Stanford University of the state's homegrown communications industry.

Stevens' first industry event is planned for Dec. 10, and features a rare public speaking appearance by futurist George Gilder, who will address -- what else? -- the future of telecommunications.

Morreale said Gilder's message, that communications networks will bend to the will of the user, is fitting for the New Jersey crowd. Many upstarts, such as Dialogic of Parsippany and IDT Corp. of Hackensack, were founded on the notion that users need new and better tools to operate on future networks that have greater speed and capacity.

"The folks that are going to provide these ideas and products are in New Jersey," Morreale said. "I think the breakout companies of tomorrow are right here hard at work in this community."

Morreale counts many Stevens alumni among the ranks at AT&T Corp., Lucent Technologies, and other telecommunications firms, New Jersey's leading employers. She said she wants to help connect these industry leaders with the next generation of innovators coming up.

"We have ideas coming out of the lab that need to find a way to the market," she said.

Isenberg said that there are ideas outside of academia -- scores of early AT&T retirees, and Bell defectors have gone out on their own to develop a dream. "This has become the engine of a new economy," he said, but without a self-conscious sense of community.

"We have a lot of little fires," Isenberg said. "But when you push all those little fires together, it burns hotter."

Copyright © 1998 Bergen Record Corp.

Date last modified: 17 December 1998