Until 1982, voice phone calls were a utility, like electricity or water. Call quality was poor, choices of services were few, and a long-distance phone call cost so much that many consumers considered it a luxury.
That all changed in 1982, as optical fiber lines began to turn a scarcity of communication bandwidth into abundance, reinventing the economics of voice calls and reordering the telecommunications industry.
MCI, with some help from Corning, was key to driving that change.
At the dawn of the 1980s, local telephone networks built with copper wires were connected to other cities and regions by microwave radio signals and satellites. MCI, originally called Microwave Communications, Inc., at first built a business carrying calls and data on microwave (in the 1960s) and then started experimenting with satellite technology (in the 1970s).
In 1982, AT&T signed a consent decree. Under the agreement, AT&T would retain its long-distance operations, and its research and manufacturing divisions but divest itself of its local telephone systems. The plan created seven independent regional companies, dubbed the “Baby Bells,” that were free to bundle their long-distance service with any provider, including MCI as they sought to reduce their long-distance line access fees.
MCI’s plan began with a meeting in the fall of 1982 at the company’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. MCI met with representatives from both Corning and Siecor, a joint venture between Siemens Telecom and Corning, that would combine Corning’s glass fibers into long-haul optical cables. MCI sought to purchase 60,000 miles of single-mode fiber to construct its terrestrial long-haul optical cable network, intending to replace its microwave and satellite-based network. The request was orders of magnitude larger than any previous order, and MCI wanted delivery within 12 months.
Adding to the stakes: MCI wanted single-mode fiber rather than the multimode fiber that Corning had already developed and commercialized in scale. Corning scientists had previously recognized the superiority of single-mode fiber, which was more efficient and had more data-carrying capacity than the multimode fiber alternative. However, the required lasers that made single-mode fiber transmission possible were only just hitting the market in the early 1980s. Single-mode fiber, with its much smaller core size (a ~95% reduction in the surface area vs then current multimode fibers for longer distance applications), required a more precise manufacturing process. Yet at the time of the MCI meeting, Corning had only manufactured single-mode fiber in the laboratory.
The MCI order triggered an around-the-clock effort to refine a process for mass-producing single-mode fiber. One decision by Corning had proved prescient: A few years earlier, the company had established an optical fiber manufacturing facility within an existing plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, despite no sizable orders for a speculative new technology. When MCI’s massive order came in, the North Carolina facility capabilities were expanded in order to also enable the full-scale production of single-mode fiber and, in the fall of 1983, Corning and Siecor delivered their first large shipments of cabled single-mode optical fiber to MCI.