Communications Week International

November 23, 1998, #215

Profile: David Isenberg

By Kenneth Cukier

For the telecoms industry, it was the equivalent to Martin Luther's theological theses at Wittenberg that unexpectedly sparked the Protestant reformation.

David Isenberg had similarly modest intentions when he wrote The Rise of the Stupid Network last year. Today, it has influenced the commercial strategies of upstart companies such as Qwest and Level 3, as well as old stalwarts such as BT and AT&T. Though humble in intent, Isenberg's treatise packed power. Posted to a private, nerdy Net discussion group, the 3,957-word essay challenged the most sacred assumptions of the telecoms world - that operators should control networks to commercialize them by building in centrally managed "intelligence."

Isenberg completely opposed that view. Whereas intelligent networks were optimized for scarcity and milking voice revenues, the Stupid Network - akin to the Internet - encourages innovation at smart end-terminals. Within a year, that view, and the new terminology Isenberg introduced, has become the mainstay of the telecoms world. The notion has even crossed the boundary of telecoms and is used to justify re-engineering corporate cultures to give employees more control.

Yet Isenberg has his critics, too. Danny Cote, vice president of voice services product management at Global One in Brussels, calls Isenberg's essay "very interesting," yet too dogmatic. "This concept of 'stupid' or 'intelligent' is nice because on paper it seems black and white," he states, "but the divisions are blurred ... it's gray."

But James Crowe, the chief executive of Level 3 Communications Inc. admits "Isenberg's insights are proving to be where the business is going."

When the essay was published in an industry magazine in June 1997 to great acclaim - but without Isenberg's or his employer AT&T's permission - the company tried to hide away the 48-year old engineer and by January 1998 he resigned. But a few months later, an AT&T board member wrote him to praise the essay and offer regret that he left the carrier.

For Isenberg, it was a long road to stardom, and he's still in shock by the spotlight. Instead of focusing on minutiae, "finally in my life I was able to put the (technical) pieces together for the larger picture (of the industry)," he said about the essay.

He received a doctorate in 1977 from the California Institute of Technology - but in biology, not engineering. Coincidentally, just as Net pioneer J.C.R. Licklider was an acoustic scientist and the first packet network was developed by Bolt Beranek & Newman (BBN), then-known for audio engineering, Isenberg too came from the intellectual tradition of speech research.

Today he keeps busy as the principal of Westfield, New Jersey-based, a consultancy he founded, along with serving on the Merrill Lynch Technology Advisory Board and speaking at industry conferences.

And Isenberg's ideas continue to win him converts. In a speech earlier this month, FCC Commissioner Michael Powell told state regulators that communications policy must take into account a Stupid Network industry environment.

"Damn, I felt so proud," Isenberg said of the FCC speech. "I knew I made a difference in the world."

Date last modified: 17 Dec 98