Last updated: February 21, 2008 - 1:10am
[SOURCE: Los Angeles Times, AUTHOR: Michael Hiltzik]
[Commentary] Although it looks like AT&T is reassembling the old Ma Bell, that monopoly, like Humpty Dumpty, can't be put back together again. There's no single communications market left for it to dominate, as there was before 1984, and no single technology standard for it to own. On the other hand, we shouldn't allow history to make us complacent. The new AT&T is no longer focused narrowly on traditional telephony markets, where an old-style antitrust analysis would begin and end. The company has a nationwide reach in traditional local and long-distance calling, wireless phones and Internet services, including Internet telephony. It's also plotting to get into the television business. Taken one by one, these are all markets with competitors, although in some markets the rivals are becoming fewer and weaker. Taken together, they constitute what looks like a highly variegated and competitive environment. But for a big company like AT&T, such an environment can yield power in obscure ways, so that what looks like genuine competition really isn't. For example, AT&T's control of an important data pipeline into the home -- whether by phone line or fiber -- gives it the ability to charge Web service providers a vigorish so they can reach their own customers. (This is what AT&T is plotting: to tilt the Internet playing field in favor of one team or another, for a fee.) The issue becomes more complicated when the service is one that AT&T itself wishes to provide -- Internet phone calling, online video, etc. Will it disadvantage its rivals in one business by exploiting its stranglehold on another? In this emerging technological world, vigilant and aggressive regulators are crucial. That's what we don't have. Moreover, as anti-regulation firebrands like AT&T's Ed Whitacre become more powerful, they become more truculent and regulators become more wimpoid.
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