in Musings

Bellsouth – AT&T Merger

You may or may not be aware that AT&T (actually what was known as SBC Communications before SBC adopted the AT&T name) is trying to merge with Bellsouth. This merger was announced early this year and has been held up by a deadlocked FCC. The merger would put tie together the majority of former Baby Bells into a reconstituted AT&T, reversing the decades of progress that the breakup of AT&T achieved.

Thanks to AT&T’s 1984 breakup, Americans now have more phone choices than ever before. The cost of telephone calls has plummeted. Cell phones are ubiquitous. Companies actually compete for your business (to some extent, anyway). Few of any of these would have happened – or happened as quickly – if AT&T was still guarding their mostly taxpayer-funded universe. If SBC … oops, I mean AT&T succeeds in swallowing Bellsouth it will put a huge swath of American telecommunications back under near-monopoly control, leaving only Qwest and Verizon out of this new, improved Ma Bell.

The reason for the delay is the FCC. Commissioners are deadlocked, 2 to 2, on the merger. FCC Commissioner (and Tar Heel) Kevin J. Martin break the impasse/a> by bringing back commissioner Robert McDowell, who recused himself due to earlier lobbying against similar big mergers. McDowell used to be general counsel for a trade group representing small phone companies.

In spite of Martin’s desire to clear this off the FCC’s decks, I think major changes will be needed for this thing to pass. Even though I believe McDowell’s vote may torpedo the merger, I think the conflict-of-interest laws should be respected and his participation should be barred. If the merger can’t convince the two commissioners, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, to vote yes then the two companies will just have to buckle down and make a more convincing case or call it off.