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Farewell to Longtime Tellabs Chief Birck

Dan O'Shea

Michael Birck, a founder and longtime leader of Tellabs, and a veteran of some of the telecom industry's most transformative decades, died last week at 77.

Birck was CEO of Tellabs for more than 25 years from the company's startup years in the 1970s until 2004, and chairman for roughly 35 years until 2013. He led the Chicago-area company to evolve from a small developer of echo cancellation technology into one of the largest and last remaining independent providers of network transport and access equipment.

If you think SDN is the most transformative thing ever to affect the telecom industry, consider the sweeping changes that took place during Birck's tenure: The AT&T break-up opened the services and network equipment markets to competition; analog evolved to digital; voice was joined by data and video; copper began to transition to fiber, and among still other evolutions, wireless grew from an interesting but unreliable technology into a defining aspect of worldwide culture.

In 2013, Birck said he would not seek re-election as chairman, while disclosing he had bone marrow cancer. (See Tellabs Chairman Retiring, Has Cancer.)

Later that year, Tellabs submitted to acquisition by Marlin Equity Partners, which integrated the company into its growing Coriant assets. The deal was widely viewed as the best possible course of action for a company which by then had come to be perceived as too slow to move into the IP era and too small to face off against increasingly large competitors. (See Tellabs' Last Hope: Marlin's Optical Ambition.)

Tellabs' slow fade, however, was a small part of the history of a company that employed thousands in the Chicago suburbs and at its height was the key supplier to both AT&T and Verizon, as well as many other service providers. It was also, like many companies in this industry, a company of inventors, one of them Birck himself, who upon his 2013 departure from Tellabs was given a plaque in recognition of his 1979 patent for a "signaling tone transparent echo suppressor."

For more information, see this Chicago Tribune story and Birck's obituary.

— Dan O'Shea, Managing Editor, Light Reading

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