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CEO Chat With CenturyLink's Bill Owens

Steve Saunders
7/12/2016

I've enjoyed interviewing many interesting people since I rejoined Light Reading, but William A. "Bill" Owens certainly takes the biscuit, as we say where I come from.

To start with, Bill has a resume that puts all others in the shade:

A former Admiral in the United States Navy, Bill's naval career includes more than ten years (4,000 days!) of service on submarines, including duty in the Vietnam War, where he also served on swift boats. From November 1990 to July 1992, he commanded the US Sixth Fleet during the Desert Storm campaign. On March 1, 1994, Bill was appointed by President Clinton to serve as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him the nation's second highest-ranking military officer, overseeing more than 1.5 million people in uniform.

Bill Owens, Non-Executive Chairman, CenturyLink
Bill Owens, Non-Executive Chairman, CenturyLink

Bill left the military in 1996, at which point he started a career in the communications industry -- one that includes firefighting the mess that was left at Nortel after Frank Dunn was fired for cause, as well as board seats and directorships at Polycom Inc., Wipro, and since 2009, the role of non-executive Chairman of CenturyLink.

But it is Bill's campaign to create an open business environment in North America in which Chinese vendors -- notably Huawei -- can sell their solutions on equal footing with suppliers from the US and other markets that has gotten him most attention recently; not much of it friendly, or positive. (Click here for Light Reading's POV on this situation.)

A patriot, then, but also someone not prone to run from a fight -- figurative or literal. And now, through his attempts to open the door to cooperation with China, probably the single most contentious figure in telecom.

You have to wonder why someone with a Wikipedia entry that reads like this would pick a fight with so many others in the rest of the industry. To find out, I got Bill on the phone at his home in Seattle. Here's what he had to say (and for more of the philosophy of Bill, check out his keynote at this year's BCE event in Austin).

Click through to the next page for the full interview.

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mendyk
mendyk
7/13/2016 | 4:31:41 PM
Re: When will the walls come down?
CC10 -- on that count, yes, lack of development of home-grown talent is a big issue. Along with lack of investment by companies, though, I'd say the rise of the Silicon Valley mentality has had a major negative impact. Instant billionaires have been created based on fairly trivial developments. This election cycle has focused on the disintermediation of the "working class" -- with the focus being on 20th century factories that aren't coming back. The undercutting of what should be a thriving and growing technology working class is much more relevant, and much more troubling.
CableCo10
CableCo10
7/13/2016 | 4:21:22 PM
Re: When will the walls come down?
Mendyk you have several good points.  In addition to our/USA 3rd decade of evolving from China manufacturing our technology to the past two decades of having them code our technology to more recent developments in IEEE where they are leaders in thought/technology publications.  Like India, their government enabled education to allow them to do the work.  USA corporation spent no effort causing USA education system to sponsor it's technology funnel of people.  By the same token, USA corporations do not hire locally trained people like BELL system use to invest.  It was around year 2000 that I realized I would not be hiring many USA based developers.  Now I am worried nobody will want USA thought/technology creators.  I think we need to follow closely how UK manages technology creation and financial centers in order to remain relevant.
mendyk
mendyk
7/13/2016 | 2:45:28 PM
Re: When will the walls come down?
If we had a truly open election, "None of the above" would win in a landslide. But the system is rigged differently. We live in interesting times.
FbytF
FbytF
7/13/2016 | 2:40:04 PM
Let's be honest
B.O could have been honest and said he just wants to be able to buy lower cost telecom gear and the article would have been just one page, maybe one paragraph. This article felt almost like a paid advertisement.  I call B.S.

 

 
DanJones
DanJones
7/13/2016 | 2:39:35 PM
Re: When will the walls come down?
True, but I'm not certain that we can assume that Clinton will be friendlier to the Chinese trade-wise. This tech policy paper wasn't just written to pander to ex-Bernie supporters, she's got a vast number of these policy summaries on different topics. While Trump will change positions with the wind it seems. 
mendyk
mendyk
7/13/2016 | 2:23:13 PM
Re: When will the walls come down?
The good news is that China has no say in who the next U.S. President will be. The bad news is that the options for that selection are ... suboptimal at best.
DanJones
DanJones
7/13/2016 | 2:16:26 PM
Re: When will the walls come down?
From what I've read, the Chinese might even prefer a Trump administration as they consider him a malleable buffoon, albeit an unknown quantity. They've dealt with Clinton already.

And her tech plan summary didn't sound particularly friendly to China to be honest:

"Grow American Technology Exports:  America leads the world in technology exports, including in information technology hardware, software, and services. Hillary will continue to fight for American exports abroad—as she did during her tenure as Secretary of State—to support jobs and innovation here at home. To prevent foreign countries from abusing the rules and taking advantage of American workers and businesses, she will advance Export Control Reform, pursue policies to protect U.S. trade secrets and IP, and resist calls for forced tech transfer or localization of data. She will also build on the Obama Administration's efforts to stop China's cyber-enabled economic espionage and ensure that China adheres to its international commitments. And she will oppose trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, unless they meet her high test of creating good-paying American jobs, raising incomes, and enhancing our national security."

 
mendyk
mendyk
7/12/2016 | 10:15:53 AM
Re: When will the walls come down?
There are a few elephants in the room regarding relationships with China. One is geopolitical -- China by default is the U.S.'s number 1 rival, with a government that doesn't conform to our organizational standards. Another is racial -- the U.S. has a history of treating China and its people as less than equals. A third is ignorance -- China already has deep roots in the U.S. economy, but we refuse to acknowledge that. These elephants will not disappear quickly, and in fact they may grow even larger depending on the outcome of the November election.
Ray@LR
[email protected]
7/12/2016 | 7:04:55 AM
When will the walls come down?
Willa Clinton administration herald a softening in stance re tech gear deployemnts from China?

Even if Clinto gets in there will still be plenty of lobbying and cries of 'security alert' I'm sure...
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