William Van Hefner
I began my career in radio and electronics. I started out repairing radios, mostly early AM broadcast radios, shortwave and ham radio transceivers. I obtained my amateur radio license and callsign KB6VWL in 1988, and have since talked to thousands of people all over the world.
In the early 1990′s I turned my interest to computers and data communications. I ran a local computer bulletin board in the days before the Internet was in wide use and was a moderator on General Electric’s online service GEnie. I began building and repairing computers around that time and got into designing and building interactive voice response (IVR) systems, which bridged an information service gap for those who didn’t own computers at the time.
My interest in computer telephone systems eventually led to getting involved in the telecommunications industry. I started off in telecom sales, since that’s where most of the money was at, at the time. I founded Vantek Communications in 1993 and acted as an independent agent for a number of telecom companies. Some of the earlier companies I worked for were WorldCom, CyberLink, BNC, Cognigen, Qwest, WTC, VoiceNet, ATN, Telegroup and WATTS International.
In the early days of deregulation there were literally hundreds of resellers and long distance carriers. Unfortunately, there were no news sources at the time that were aimed specifically at this industry though… So, I started one. My first newsletter Discount Long Distance Digest started in December 1993 and was circulated via fax and e-mail to subscribers of America Online and Compuserve. Internet access was largely limited to those who had accounts at universities, federal government and large defense contractors at the time, and there was no such thing as the “World Wide Web”. Circulation of the newsletter really began to expand when America Online and Compuserve started offering an e-mail gateway to other online services and eventually the Internet. Before long, I had a list of about 5,000 subscribers.
Shortly thereafter, the World Wide Web began to emerge as a viable way to distribute news content on the Internet, although very few people used it at the time and even fewer people could afford to own their own domain names. It cost around $100 to register your own domain name at that time, and the only TLD available in the United States was .com. You couldn’t even apply for a .net or .org domain without a bunch of documentation and extra paperwork proving what you were going to use the domain for. Eventually, my e-mail newsletter began to be republished on the web by Williams Communications Group, who at the time owned a long distance carrier named WilTel. WilTel was eventually purchased by WorldCom, then MCI, then Verizon. It wasn’t long before I decided that I needed my own domain and website. In 1995, TheDigest.Com was born.
The e-mail newsletter eventually disappeared altogether, and readers switched to reading the website exclusively. Moving to the web allowed me to sell advertising banner space, which eventually led to the publication making enough money to cut back on my telecom sales work and concentrate on writing nearly full-time. I developed a handful of other telecom websites along the way, such as telcompare.com. It was TheDigest.Com that was always my passion though. I really enjoyed the opportunity it gave me to become an advocate for telecom agents and consumers. My favorite part of the site was the “Hall of Shame”, which featured stories about telecom companies that consumers should beware of.
After about a year of hosting my website with a company named Verio, TheDigest.Com suffered a major catastrophe. Verio “lost” the server that it was hosted on. Their company had over-expanded through acquisitions and literally did not know where much of their own equipment resided, and didn’t have a way of contacting some of their own employees. The website was down for several weeks. I finally ended-up having to build my own web server using Microsoft Windows NT and leased T1 capacity through my local ISP Northcoast Internet. Relying upon them for connectivity resulted in relocating my office a couple of times. I had moved from a small office in Eureka to a larger office in Arcata at Jacoby’s Storehouse to an even larger office in Eureka at 6th & H Streets. Northcoast Internet eventually shut-down, leaving me to fend for myself and purchase my own T1 feed. It ran me about $1,500 a month at the time, which seems ridiculous compared to today’s broadband prices.
TheDigest.Com eventually recovered, and soon I was getting over 1,000 visitors per day to the website. This was at the height of the dot.com boom, and when the telecom industry itself was skyrocketing. The success of the website led to a number of outside writing and editing positions. I was an editor for the PhoneZone news website, which was owned by Hello-Direct.Com at the time. I also began writing a regular op-ed column in America’s Network Magazine called Teleconfidential. That gig led to even more opportunities, and soon I was doing interviews and consulting on telecommunications news stories for publications such as Money Magazine, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, NBC News, CNN, CNBC and more media outlets than I could possibly print.
Everything was going along great, until the dot.com bubble burst and the telecom industry in the U.S. started a downward spiral that it has never really recovered from. Initially, there was massive consolidation, mergers and buyouts. It wasn’t very long before wireless carriers and VoIP providers began to make much of the existing telecom industry “obsolete”. First, it was the traditional “calling card” business that was destroyed. Then, it was the payphone industry. Eventually, the domestic long distance industry itself became an endangered species. There seemed to be hope for awhile when the Federal Communications Commission started allowing resellers to offer local phone service. For a few brief years, there was actual competition in the local telephone business. Dozens of companies were able to offer bundled local and long distance service at reasonable rates with a slew of new features. Consumers could pick up their local phone books and find a dozen or more companies offering competitive residential phone service in their area, throughout most of the country. It was a fantastic time to be a telecom consumer.
Unfortunately for consumers, the good times were not meant to last. The local “Baby Bell” telephone companies (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress and applying pressure to political leaders in order to convince them to eliminate competition in the local telephone industry. Money talks. Eventually, the Federal Communications Commission completely reversed its position on the rights of companies to offer telephone, DSL and cable television services through resale. A number of subsequent federal court rulings that have all but reversed the original breakup of the Bell Telephone monopoly have led to the elimination of most competition in the wireline telecom industry. AT&T and Verizon now dominate both the wireline and wireless telecom industry. There are almost no companies offering competitive residential, local telephone service. Payphones have vanished. Over 90% of the independent long distance carriers and resellers have gone out of business. There are no companies offering competitive cable service via resale any longer. There are only a very small handful of ISPs offering DSL in competition with the major telephone and cable companies, and most of them will have to stop offering it when their existing contracts with AT&T and Verizon expire. Prices on wireless and Internet connectivity have dropped, but there is less competition in the telephone and cable industries than ever. The skyrocketing price and dwindling quality of of local telephone and cable service directly reflects the lack of competition.
I saw the handwriting on the wall. In November of 2007, I reached an agreement with a private investor (who wishes to remain anonymous) to purchase TheDigest.Com, TelCompare.Com and all of my remaining telecom-related websites. The sale also included an existing customer base of thousands of residential and small business telecom customers. I can’t reveal details of the sale, due to contractual obligations. I was extremely lucky to get out when I did though. I no longer have any involvement with TheDigest.Com, and most of the content that I originally created for the website has since disappeared.
After completing the sale, I took some well-deserved time off. I hadn’t had an actual vacation in over 15 years, and most of those years I was working 60-80 hours a week. I love what I do though, so the time truly does seem to fly by.
Vantek Communications, Inc. maintains facilities in Eureka, California, although we have since moved (again) out of the huge office we used to occupy downtown. We host a number of sites such as HumboldtOnline.Com and other domains that are currently under development.
I’m currently working on a number of different writing and publishing projects. I’ve stuck mostly to what I know (telecom), but have began branching out into other subjects as well. Besides the occasional local news article, some of the latest work I have been doing is on the subject of diabetes. I was diagnosed with the disease several years ago, and it has become an ever increasing burden upon my life (and pocketbook). Writing about the complex world of drug treatments, research and fake “cures” for the disease has been my main interest. Look for more to come.
Well, if you’ve read this far, you probably know more about me than you should! If you’d like to contact me, please use the contact form on this page. Thanks much for stopping by my site.
William Van Hefner
Vantek Communications, Inc.
3144 Broadway, Suite 3
Eureka, California 95501-3838
United States of America
Business Phone: +1 707-476-0833
e-mail: van (at) humboldtonline.com