Most big cities have one, a high-rise where international and local Internet and telephone companies meet, where huge data switches chat with other switches to goose traffic along the Information Superhighway. In New York City, it's 60 Hudson St.; in Seattle, the Westin Building; in Dallas, it's Bryant Street. San Francisco has Brannan Street, and Miami has New World Tower. Los Angeles' prominence in telecommunications is little-known, but the city has the highest concentration of info companies and equipment in the nation. One Wilshire is the epicenter of the city's telecom explosion.
In the corner, pianist Barry Thomas presses out the power chords from The Phantom of the Opera. The only spot of color comes from a towering floral arrangement in brilliant reds and greens. I am meeting with Mike Kernan, L.A. operations manager for one of One Wilshire's top tenants, STAR Telecommunications. Though hardly a household word, STAR is a major player, one of the U.S.'s largest international wholesalers of telephone and data-traffic services. Kernan has promised me a tour of STAR's 22,500-square-foot Network Operations Center, or NOC. This command post is the telecom equivalent of air-traffic control at the airport, just without all the people. I'm also hoping for a look at the Meet Me Room, One Wilshire's colorfully named central junction, where all the planet's Internet and phone companies come together and shake hands.
Kernan greets me with a smile and a firm handshake, and asks to see my press credentials. "Security is a real issue for us," Kernan says. "There are cameras throughout our facility which are directly monitored by our security department at company headquarters in Santa Barbara." With his black collarless shirt, black vest, black slacks, gold earring and watch, and black loafers with gold buckles, he looks like he should be at the shiny black grand piano, not escorting me past racks of technical equipment. "Actually, I got my start at the Ohio School of Broadcasting Technology in Cleveland, and I am a musician," he explains. "My wife, Monique, and I own a recording studio in Victorville." Kernan has been in telecom for 17 years; he travels with a small receiver tucked inside his ear to maintain constant phone communication with every corner of STAR's operations.
We first drop by STAR's Tech Room A, where employees are testing and tuning up circuits between Los Angeles and foreign cities. A board displays current projects, including a data circuit from Los Angeles to Lahore, Pakistan. "We're working with WorldCom on that one," says Kernan. STAR has standing capacity with telephone companies in 51 countries, including Telstra in Australia, IDC in Japan and Alestra in Mexico, and an ownership interest in 17 transoceanic fiber-optic cable networks.
Then it's on to the NOC, "the largest network-control center in Los Angeles," says Kernan. The heart of the facility is the back-to-back domestic and international telephone switch manufactured by equipment giant Nortel. "We handle well over 1 million phone calls a day," Kernan says. He leads me past rows of humming equipment cabinets bathed in a rush of cold air. Telecom equipment does not like heat. The lights on this equipment start blinking erratically when the temperature rises. To keep the machines comfortable, One Wilshire management provides more than 2,000 tons of air conditioning. Caterpillar generators hold 10,000 gallons of fuel -- enough to make sure the STAR NOC's lights stay on even if the rest of Los Angeles is dark.
Twenty-two employees work in shifts around the clock to knit together STAR's global data network. STAR's international gateway switches in Los Angeles, New York and Miami connect the U.S. to the top 20 countries phoned by Americans. STAR customers include the top 12 long-distance carriers, including AT&T, MCI and Sprint. STAR also offers retail phone service through acquisitions such as PT-1, offering prepaid calling cards, and its own companies CEO Telecommunications and ALLSTAR Telecom. The company also offers "co-location" space in its equipment racks to carriers such as InterPacket Group Inc. of Santa Monica, which provides the L.A. Internet connection for foreign Internet service providers.
Kernan's face lights up when he opens the door to the conference room adjoining the NOC. "This is really something in here," he says. "The sales guys use this room when they want to impress somebody." The conference area has surround-sound, two-way video and touch-screen controls. With a push of a button, an opaque wall melts into transparency, revealing the monitoring consoles, world maps and illuminated system displays of the NOC next door.