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1980s American Telephone And Telegraph Company

June 2024
1min read

THE DANGERS OF THE REGULATED LIFE

The nationwide Bell Telephone System’s parent company, AT&T, was the world’s largest corporation, with assets of $155 billion. It operated the Bell System as a regulated monopoly. Because this monopoly held federal sanction, the company counted as the bluest of blue chips, and its directors looked ahead to decades of dominance. Their commitment to the long term was reflected in Bell Labs, for decades the nation’s leading center for industrial research.

In the 1960s, the firm of MCI won the right to set up its own microwave network—and to link it to the Bell System. This raised questions about the continuation of AT&T’s monopoly, and about its longstanding practice of subsidizing low-cost local service through high longdistance rates.

In 1982 a landmark settlement ended the monopoly and brought deregulation to the field of telecommunications. AT&T won the right to enter the world of computers, but the nationwide Bell network was split into seven regional “Baby Bells.” As newcomers drove long-distance rates downward, AT&T became just another large, reasonably strong company. Bell Labs turned its eyes from distant horizons, to I become merely one more big corporate lab with a focus on the near term.

—T.A.H.

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