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Innovation and Contrarianism Define Bob Frankston, Champion of Broadband

Elijah Labby

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July 24, 2020 — Bob Frankston’s life is one characterized by innovation and contrarianism.

From an early age, Frankston was fiercely independent and entrepreneurial, traits that were well-suted for coding, he said in an interview with the University of Minnesota.

“It wasn’t just that it was OK to be an entrepreneur; it was, ‘Why work for somebody?’” he said. “…Maybe it’s an ADHD thing, but I think the programming sort of aided and abetted that. You could do things on your own that were significant.”

In high school, Frankston converted IBM software and worked with White Weld & Co., an international financial services company.

After high school and a brief time at Stony Brook University of New York, Frankston received both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Following his time at MIT, Frankston decided that “graduate school was not my future… but I still stayed friendly with MIT.” He made friends with Dan Bricklin, a Harvard MBA student with whom Frankston created Software Arts and VisiCalc.

VisiCalc was the first electronic spreadsheet software, laying the groundwork for Microsoft Excel, which is used today by millions of professionals across the world.

“I started working in late November of 1978 on what was the real VisiCalc. Basically, we were sort of working it out as we were doing it,” he said. “…The division of labor was crucial because one thing I realized is [that] having two people whose skills overlap a lot is important. So Dan could experiment with the user interface because he had no stake in the actual code… I was very concerned with usability.”

For many, VisiCalc showed that the personal computer could be a tool for effective business management.

“In the 1930s there was a study saying that by the 1950s everybody would have to be a phone operator for the phone system to work,” he said. “And by the 1950s, indeed, everybody was a phone operator, by making a dial and making it easy. And VisiCalc made everybody a programmer.”

Frankston’s innovative nature is paired with a dose of contrarianism.

In a recent Broadband Breakfast Live Online event, Frankston spoke about the role of municipal versus private broadband networks, arguing that private networks were unnecessary.

“All they do is help packets mosey along,” he said. “…They don’t guarantee that you’re going to get to your destination, they just provide an opportunity.”

This idea runs counter to the prevailing Federal Communications Commission sentiment that dealing out large grants to private networks increases accessibility and affordability of telecom services.

When asked about the future of telecom developments and technology generally, Frankston said that discovery was paramount.

“The best ideas are discovered,” he said. “So we need to create an opportunity for discovery. And by removing paywalls and having open connectivity, we will create the opportunity for the kind of discovery that gave us the web… we need [policies] optimized for discovery.”

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