CEO Chat With CenturyLink's Bill OwensCEO Chat With CenturyLink's Bill Owens
Light Reading's Founder and CEO Steve Saunders sits down with CenturyLink's Non-Executive Chairman Bill Owens for a candid exchange of views about the current and future state of telecom, career choices and international waters.
July 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.
Figure 1: 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.
Bill Owens: Hi Steve. How are you?
Steve Saunders: I'm really well. Glad that we're talking.
BO: This world is moving so fast; it's good both to be involved and to be learning from it all.
SS: Yes, we're living through extraordinary times; the nature of this industry which we are both part of has changed fundamentally. Back in the 90s, next-gen communications meant connecting expensive office equipment basically. Today, the network is indivisible from the world that it connects. It's really part of the DNA of global society.
BO: And so little of it is understood by so many -- especially governments. You watch how the FCC is trying to enforce the constitution in the face of the free Internet. It's very interesting.
SS: Tell me about the Amerilink experience. [Note: Amerilink was a failed effort to get Huawei approved as a supplier for Sprint's network by using trusted American leaders to provide ongoing warranties that it represented no security risk to the US people. In addition to Owens, board members included Gordon England, who served as deputy secretary of defense and homeland security under former President George W. Bush; former Speaker of the House Richard Gephardt; and former World Bank President James Wolfensohn.]
BO: It certainly immersed my mind into what the US government was about and also the value of Huawei. I got to see their engineering and technical capability, and I spent quite a lot of time in Kansas City [at Sprint's HQ]. At various times Huawei had several hundred people there. I found them to be quick to respond. And, as you know, Steve, they were extremely innovative in terms of finding solutions. This was at a time when Sprint was in all sorts of trouble. They had all of this spectrum, but no solution to integrate it and make them truly different and successful. Huawei placed the resources in Kansas City to come up with some wonderful solutions to integrate that spectrum that would have made a huge difference in Sprint's bottom line -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- if it had been allowed to go forward.
I was impressed enough to engage with the various agencies in Washington that I'm close to; the FCC, and the Defense and Intelligence organizations. And Huawei was very ready to cooperate with the United States government on whatever agreements were necessary. And I thought I understood the Senate and the House fairly well.
BO: Maybe. We came face to face with the political reality of Washington, and the fact that it was an election year. It is a very difficult thing to adequately prepare for something which continues to be as contentious as a Chinese player like Huawei coming into the United States.
SS: It's interesting. When I meet with the chief technology officers or other senior executives at very large North American service providers they almost universally express a wish to have the freedom to do business with Huawei, just as their overseas competitors do. And in three instances in the last few months I've had carriers tell me that they have Huawei equipment in their network, including in the core network. But of course then they immediately say "Please don't tell anyone that!" It's as if innovation is overcoming political procrastination; Huawei is here, now, but Washington is still saying, "No, no, keep them out." Do you think that situation in Washington will ever change?
BO: I do think it will change. As a nation we cannot be in a situation where telecom providers can't have access to the best technology in the world. In technology terms, nothing is so important to smaller states than availability of bandwidth, and yet we have great difficulty getting really quality high bandwidth into the rural states like North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana. And then when you look at the more populace states, the bandwidth there isn't as good as many as many other parts of the world. So there's clearly a digital divide.
You mentioned talking to CTOs; there's no question that CTOs and CIOs are all well-aware of what's available from Huawei, and in fact Huawei has already entered the United States in several ways. They've got some small enterprise contracts -- Red Bison is involved with a little bit of that [Ed.note: Red Bison Advisory Group is a consulting company founded by Bill and his business partner and another Nortel alum, Martha Bejar] -- and they're also working with some small rural telecoms providers.
In my view, it's strange that when we take our technology to Europe or to China we're not required to go through all of the same hurdles. I'm not saying it is all roses for us when we get to those places, because there are other kinds of restrictions, but it seems to me when we talk about fair free trade that when others allow our technology into their country we should be quite welcoming of others in return, including Huawei and ZTE. I'm afraid that the politics and to some degree the media get in the way of that.
Next page: The need for leadership
SS: One of the things that you've said to me previously, Bill, was that you didn't think that there could be a real change in the attitude towards Chinese communications companies in North America until there was a change under this administration. Do you still feel that way?
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