When Cyrus Field planned the first transatlantic cable in the 1850s, he and his partners had to rely on European investors to finance the project. This incident was a telling example of American attitudes towards electrical communications with the rest of the world in the decades following the invention of the Morse telegraph.
The national focus at the time was on the domestic expansion of telegraph and telephone networks. The potential value of overseas links was largely ignored. In Washington, the government’s concerns were centered on fears of foreign control over internal communications. The first congressional legislation dealing with telecommunications, the Radio Act of 1912, touched on cross-border issues in only one provision, restricting foreign ownership of American networks. 1 The United States refused to join the International Telegraph Union, created in 1865 to set technical standards for cross-border telegraph traffic, fearing that the organization might attempt to regulate domestic networks.
Until the 1940s, the major players in international communications were the Europeans, led by the British and the French. The latter saw telegraph networks as vital links for maintaining control over their colonies in Asia and Africa. As a result, the British and French governments had an effective monopoly of global telegraph circuits before World War II. U.S. companies such as AT&T and ITT played a minor role, largely by default, in Central and South America. 2
In 1900, the American government faced its first major foreign policy issue in electronic communications. It involved a British attempt to set up a worldwide monopoly in wireless communications, based on the successful experiments of Guglielmo Marconi, who was a British citizen.