Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

The Breakup of AT&T and the Move to Wireless Duopoly, Part I: Transformation

Posted on | March 21, 2011 | No Comments

The potential AT&T merger with T-Mobile announced over the weekend raises questions about the legacy of the former telecom monopoly and the unending role of government regulation in the industry. The deal which requires AT&T to pay $39 billion in stocks and cash to create the largest mobile provider in the US, has the backing of the Communications Workers of America, an important alliance in the fight to gain government approval for the deal. This post addresses the transformation of the industry that was initiated by a series of actions that led to the breakup of the AT&T monopoly. The next post will examine the emergence of the wireless industry which grew rather independently of the telcos, until the 1990s anyway. I delved into my notes first for the below explanation of the “breakup” of AT&T and how it opened up the telecommunications to new innovations, including wireless.

In 1980, IBM officially went into competition with AT&T when it offered its Satellite Business Systems (SBS) service, a partnership with Aetna Life & Casualty and Comsat. SBS was set up to provide “intranet” telecommunications services for banks and other businesses after the FCC deregulated satellite services in the early 1970s. Using new Ku band technology, SBS services such as data, facsimile, electronic mail, telephony and video conferencing could be transmitted directly to smaller antennas at the user’s premises. This meant that they could effectively bypass AT&T’s network and provide a type of direct broadcasting service, except with two-way capabilities. Jill Hills: “It seems to have been the entry of IBM via its SBS consortium into direct competition that altered AT&T’s attitude from formal toleration of competition to outright aggression in defense of its monopoly.”[1] The Consent Decree of 1956 had restricted AT&T from computer activities and now it saw IBM entering a potentially very lucrative market. With some US$1.26 billion invested in this competing satellite communications system that could circumvent Ma Bell’s existing facilities, it got the full attention of AT&T. [2]

Consequently, in the early 1980s, AT&T looked to the political realm for protection. “Action switched from the FCC to Congress as AT&T under its chairman, John de Butt, set about raising political consciousness of the FCC decisions.”[3] However, members of Congress did not rush to support AT&T, a potent contributor, as a number of criticisms were in the process of being raised. These primarily concerned:

    1) competing equipment suppliers who wanted to break into the telecommunications and customer premise equipment (CPE) markets that were dominated by AT&T’s Western Electric;
    2) business users, especially banks, who wanted more sophisticated services, including those offered by SBS, and;
    3) competing carriers who found it difficult to compete against AT&T’s dominance of long distance transmission facilities and “local loop” telephony services. In fact, the government was looking to create a more competitive, privatized data-networking environment free from the dominance of AT&T. [4]

Deregulatory actions during the 1960s and 1970s cut into AT&T’s legislatively mandated monopoly on all telecommunications, but it was still by far the major service and equipment provider. The Justice Department had filed an anti-trust suit against Ma Bell in 1974, challenging its competitive practices and seeking to divest Western Electric, its manufacturing arm, in addition to its Bell Operating Companies. Then 1980, the FCC issued its Computer II Decision that was specifically focused on the future role of AT&T. It deregulated all data processing services and customer premises equipment allowing AT&T to enter other markets, although through a separate subsidiary. Despite some restrictions, this officially allowed AT&T to compete outside its traditional purview for the first time.[5]

Despite his ideological convictions, Ronald Reagan was noncommittal about the breakup, mainly because his Secretary of Commerce William Baldridge presented the threat of foreign equipment manufacturers entering the US market and also because his Secretary of Defense, Casper Weinberg, argued forcibly “that an integrated AT&T was desirable for national security.” However, his Justice Department was ideologically motivated enough to carry on with the divestiture, particularly William Baxter, the Assistant Attorney General for Anti-Trust.[6] Baxter argued in 1981 that the radical restructuring of the world’s largest company would forward the new administration’s promise of reducing regulation and promoting competition. In face of the opposition from the Departments of Commerce and Defense, the DOJ continued with its anti-trust case.

The result was a three-pronged approach. The Department of Justice continued its investigation of AT&T while the FCC sought, through Computer II, to distinguish between regulated basic service (both long distance and local loop services) and unregulated enhanced services such as data communications. The Republican Congress, led on this issue by Senator Packwood, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, proceeded with a legislative solution along the basic/enhanced distinctions desired by FCC but with awkward accounting and regulatory requirements. Although passed by the Senate and supported by AT&T, the Packwood bill failed to make it through the House and it never became law. It was the Justice Department that won out, agreeing to a Consent Decree with AT&T in January of 1982. AT&T, facing the DOJ’s persuasive case, decided to settle. The result was a political decision bypassing the FCC and other traditional forms of telecommunications policy. Ultimately called the Modified Final Judgement (MFJ), it split AT&T into a competitive company consisting of a long distance carrier and a manufacturing arm and a set of regulated Bell Operating Companies (BOCs) that would provide local exchange services. AT&T and the Justice Department agree on tentative terms for settlement of anti-trust suit filed against AT&T in 1974.

The MFJ created 22 Bell Operating Companies, 7 Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs or “Baby Bells”) and AT&T.

While the MFJ did not provide the total datacom solution wanted in the corporate world, it initiated the opening up what was previously a significantly closed telecommunications system. The next year, in a coffee shop in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Bernard J. Ebbers, Bill Fields, David Singleton and Murray Waldron worked out details for starting a long distance company, LDDS (Long Distance Discount Service), the precursor to WorldCom. In 1984 President Reagan approved international competition for the INTELSAT international satellite system after petition from Orion to provide transatlantic telecommunications services for corporate users. But while significant liberalization was being made in the United States, countries around the world still held on to a government owned and controlled telecommunications system. In order for the new internationalization of financial services and digital commerce to be enacted, telecommunications changes needed to occur worldwide.

As a result of the Department of Justice’s 1982 Consent Decree, AT&T divested its Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) which retained control over the basic telecommunications exchanges and local lines in their respective territories. A Consent Decree means that all parties agree to the remedy. The RBOCs or “Baby Bells” as they were sometimes called were restricted from entering the long-distance interstate communications markets and also from manufacturing telephone equipment. The parent company was called ATT and it retained its continental Long Lines Division, research center Bell Telephone Labs (Bellcore) and Western Electric, its manufacturing arm. Two new subsidiaries were created to allow the company to expand into previously restricted areas. ATT Information Systems was an unregulated subsidiary offering, what was termed by the Second Computer Inquiry, “enhanced” services. These included information services and customer premise equipment, including computers.

AT&T had been involved with the creation of the mobile phone through its Bell Labs division but lost the initiative to Motorola in 1970s. It later effectively ceded the mobile business to the RBOCs after an AT&T report estimated the market for mobile phones in the year 2000 would be 900,000. In January of 1982, AT&T indicated that cellular would be given to the local companies, the RBOCs, after the FCC divided the 40 MHz it allocated to cellular into two segments. One segment would go to the local telephone company in each market and the other would be open to non-telephone companies that wanted it.

As a result of this bifurcated market, the mobile telephone industry emerged largely in this “other” market, thanks largely to the controversial financing methods of Michael Milken and the defunct investment firm Drexel Burnham Lambert. Milken helped the McCaw family assemble the wireless industry during the 1980s, raising raising money for the formation of McCaw Wireless which it sold to AT&T in 1994.

Notes

[1] Hills, J. (1986) Deregulating Telecoms: Competition and Control in the United States, Japan and Britain. p. 66. Quote on IBM’s threat to AT&T.
[2] Hills, J. (1986) p. 63. Investment figures on SBS.
[3] Hills, J. (1986) p. 66. Raising concerns about FCC to members of Congress.
[4] Dan Schiller. Telematics and Government. p. 92. Stance of US government towards AT&T.
[5] For example, the subsidiary could not use Bell Labs software. Hills, J. (1986) Deregulating Telecoms. p. 66.
[6] Brock, G. (1981) The Telecommunications Industry: The Dynamics of Market Structure. Harvard University Press. p. 156-157.
[7] Schiller, D. (1982), p. 163.

Anthony

Anthony J. Pennings, PhD has been on the NYU faculty since 2001 teaching digital media, information systems management, and global communications.

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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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