Flashback to Sonoma County’s Telecom Valley, a hotbed of high-tech

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The recent death of Don Green, the famous philanthropist and telecommunications pioneer, has refocused attention on a pivotal period of inventive magic that put Sonoma County on the map as a hotbed of high tech.

Green’s co-founding of fiber-optic company Optilink in 1987 spawned Telecom Valley, an innovation hub in northeast Petaluma that sizzled until the tech bubble burst in 2001.

This earned Engineer Green, who had an innate ability to recruit top talent, the nickname Father of Telecom Valley. Born in Liverpool, England, in 1931, he was the son of a coal miner who arrived in California in 1960.

Since many local residents are too young to remember this collection of telecommunications ingenuity or were not around to witness it, I spoke to a few close friends and colleagues of Green who worked with him to shed light on what led to its formation and made the phenomenon a famous chapter in the history of local businesses.

Its origin dates back to the federal government’s decision in 1982 to dismantle the monopoly telephone company AT&T, known as Ma Bell. It deregulated telecommunications.

A few years later, this sparked a torrent of entrepreneurs, venture investors and engineers in Dallas, Raleigh, North Carolina, Atlanta and Sonoma County to start businesses to develop equipment and services. technologies to upgrade telephone lines to carry data and high-speed voice communication over a single copper wire and fiber optic.

John Webley of Santa Rosa, also an engineer and one of Green’s first Optilink employees and later its business partner at Advanced Fiber Communications, said Telecom Valley was born in a former cheesecake factory in the North McDowell Boulevard neighborhood. of Petaluma, near the present home of Lagunitas. Brewing Co. Green bought the space in the summer of 1987 and began to put together a formidable team.

Optilink got to work to improve what Webley called “the last mile” of cable between homes and the nearest telecommunications network switching center. At the time, landline dial phones were dominant. Telephone service was in dire need of an upgrade and aging lines were unable to support digital communication.

Start-up Petaluma designed and built a new network switch and tried unsuccessfully to sell it to one of the country’s seven regional Baby Bell phone companies.

After that, Webley knew it was time to jump ship in search of another telecommunications company, and in 1990 Green sold Optilink to Texas-based DSC Communications for $ 54 million.

In 1992, Webley, Green, and another partner started Advanced Fiber Communications in Webley’s Garage. The goal was to combine fiber optic and copper cable lines. This startup caught fire, giving the growing local tech hub and community a big financial boost and fueled more innovation.

Advanced Fiber went public in 1996 and instantly created 80 millionaires from an initial stock offering. It was considered at the time to be the most successful Telecom Valley company and has become a magnet for other startups.

AFC also owned 500,000 shares of networking start-up Cerent Corp., which Cisco Systems acquired in 1999 for $ 7 billion – an “obscene amount,” Webley recalled. At the time, the region’s telecommunications industry employed 12,000, many of whom were engineers with salaries of over $ 80,000 per year, double the county’s average salary at the time.

Green owned shares and options in AFC valued at $ 137 million in 1997. This windfall made possible the $ 10 million donation that Green and his wife, Maureen, made for the construction of the Green. Music Center at Sonoma State University.

At its peak in the late 1990s, Petaluma’s Telecom Valley was home to around 60 or 70 small tech companies. These entrepreneurial initiatives laid the foundations for a modern high-speed Internet.

Many people who joined Green in his early ventures went on to start their own businesses, including Cerent, Next Level Communications, Diamond Lane Communications, Turin Networks, Westwave Communications, Calix, and Cyan.

Many of these early startups grew up in South County and then either sold their shares to investors or were acquired by larger players in the broad field of telecommunications and computer hardware and software.

Rich Stanfield, who Green hired in 1994 as vice president of sales at Advanced Fiber, said companies in Telecom Valley have thrived by combining smart innovators, insightful operators with telecommunications expertise and, of course, a lot of money in venture capital.

“People like Don listened more than they spoke,” said Stanfield, another type of executive at the time who valued the opinions of key people he hired.

When the overheated US tech market imploded in 2001, local businesses cut 6,000 jobs in two years. Then in June 2015, what was left of Alcatel-Lucent in Petaluma, successor to Telecom Valley’s first startup, closed its doors. This ended a chapter steeped in the history of a high-flying telecommunications industry that in the 1990s employed thousands of people and generated billions for the economy of Sonoma County.

Forward-thinking, Green told The Press Democrat that he still sees opportunities for expansion in different types of technology.

Indeed, a group of at least 20 telecommunications contractors that he recruited at one point, including Webley, Stanfield and Michael Hatfield, continue his legacy in various high-tech companies.

“We haven’t left,” said Webley, a native of South Africa who ended his foray into telecommunications technology in 2007 when he sold Turin Networks to computer maker Dell.

Three years later he again launched Trevi Systems in Rohnert Park, focused on reducing the energy required to convert seawater into drinking water. Stanfield and Ed Boyd, another AFC alumnus, co-founded Tibit Communications in Petaluma, maker of a small plug-in device for high-speed digital connections to homes, businesses and cell towers.

In 2018 Hatfield, who had helped run Cerent, Calix and Cyan, launched Carium and embarked on a mobile app and web platform to manage personal health data.

“We’ve all tried to retire, but we all have a bee in our hat to do something,” Webley said.

In this regard, they also seem to resemble the father of Telecom Valley who, at 55, retired for three weeks before launching his plan to launch Optilink.

Send your tips and ideas as this column chronicles the local economic recovery to [email protected] Call or text 215-237-4448. Or you can message @BiznewsPaulB on Twitter.

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