Sharon Black (IntlAf ’71, MS TeleCom ’72) has the rare distinction of being the first graduate of the Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program (ITP), which was the first academic program of its kind in the world. In fact, she was the only student in the very first class.
After a career as an international telecommunications analyst, consultant, and attorney with more than 40 years of industry experience, she has taught in the ITP as an adjunct professor for 17 years and has been a scholar in residence since spring 2012.
“In the telecommunications and information technology industries, CU’s telecommunications program is well recognized as the nation’s oldest and one of the most prestigious graduate telecommunications programs in the world,” says Black. “This is mainly because of our hands-on laboratory, technical courses, and interdisciplinary focus.”
Black’s extensive experience in telecommunications, law, and national and international policy adds a deeper dimension to understanding the challenges that technology businesses face. She has consulted on telecommunications issues worldwide, working in the public and private sectors of the telecommunications field spanning a wide range of technology, from satellite and cellular to microwave and optic fiber.
Highly experienced in telecommunications business development, Black has written compliance rules and implemented regulations for state and international governments. Her book Telecommunications Law in the Internet Age is used by law schools and engineering programs in universities around the world.
But she didn’t set out to become an expert in telecommunications policy and regulations.
A yearlong study abroad trip to Costa Rica ignited a passion for international work that led Black to an undergraduate degree from CU in international affairs in 1971. That same year, CU-Boulder professors George Codding and Frank Barnes were developing the ITP. When she was recruited to the ITP master’s program by Codding, who was head of the International Affairs Department, “telecommunications” was a relatively new term in a budding field. Her initial response was, “tele-what?”
Housed in the electrical engineering department, the ITP was designed as an interdisciplinary program and included courses in economics, law, social sciences, and policy/regulation. The objective was to prepare students to function successfully in all of the disciplines or areas of study that relate to telecommunications.
When Black arrived in the fall of 1971 to start graduate school in the pioneering program at CU, she discovered she was in an exclusive class of one—herself!
While in graduate school, Black worked as a research assistant at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Institute of Telecommunications Studies (now the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in Boulder), a technical think tank for federal agencies, including the U.S. Congress, Federal Communications Commission, and the Department of Justice. After getting her master’s degree in 1972, she continued working there as a telecommunications analyst for four more years.
“I had fully planned to make my career at the Commerce Department,” she says. “I got to do early research on lasers, satellites, and optic fibers—very cool stuff. It was the most magical place to work.”
After making an agonizing decision, her husband’s job took them to Minnesota. During the next 14 years, Black worked as a telecom engineer designing, operating, and managing telecom networks for a bank and then for an insurance company that maintained a nationwide financial services network. She helped design and install the country’s first ATM networks.
In 1989, Black and her husband and three children returned to Boulder where she set up shop as an independent telecom consultant, later enrolling in law school at the University of Denver.
In 1995, the year she graduated and passed the bar, the Colorado legislature passed a law to open the local telecom industry to competition and mandated a yearlong process to rewrite the state’s telecom law. Black was hired by the state of Colorado to facilitate that process.
She started her own law firm in 1998, specializing in local, national, and international telecommunications and Internet law. She combines her knowledge of engineering, economics, and technology law in her consulting work and is currently working on two more books: one that documents new advances in health information technology and another on international approaches to emergency communications.
At CU, Black is working with engineering students on a variety of innovative projects. One involves students working on the use of telecommunications networks and devices to make health care more available in Rwanda. Another involves communications options used by counties to recover from natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.
Last year, the ITP accepted its first class of PhD students and is starting a research center in the program.
“Working with students inspires me,” says Black. “To accomplish projects such as these, the interdisciplinary approach of the ITP really serves the students well. Codding and Barnes were visionaries when they established the ITP. They knew that universities needed to prepare students in the ‘Information Age’ to be able to think in broad terms, to appreciate the input of other disciplines, to ask focused questions of others working with them on projects, and to borrow insights and solutions from other disciplines.”