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February 2024
1min read

Regarding Mr. Baida’s article “Breaking the Connection” about AT&T (June/July), I believe it is a competent account done in a very short space.

My quoted statement that the “public’s desire for diversity in communications services and suppliers” was challenged as “not persuasive.” Further, the author says that the “decision to break up AT&T was made not by the public, but by government officials acting as representatives of the public.”

I’m not sure we are in disagreement, because that’s how the public makes decisions—through its representatives. But this is more than a quibble, because if we learn anything from the divestiture history, we learn that a series of events, one upon another under no specific or overall direction, culminated in the mindless destruction of a corporate masterpiece.

The Department of Justice embarked upon another of its periodic attacks on the Bell System in 1974 with intent to destroy it. This without knowledge of the President or most of his cabinet. The federal regulatory authorities and the courts introduced competition bit by bit into a monopoly environment despite a decade of warnings that the consequences needed to be understood and that the average telephone user would be injured. A third federal body, the Congress, was unable over a period of years to restate public policy in a way that fitted rapidly changing circumstances. No elected official in Washington—or elsewhere to my knowledge—ever publicly advocated the Justice Department’s position to break up the Bell System. And yet no one in three administrations was able or willing to stop the drift toward what the public and most government officials now consider a disaster.

Unfortunately such drifting is the way some important policy decisions are made in this country. The pressure to change the Bell System was piecemeal and diverse but inexorable. The decision to do it by divestiture was dictated by the need for the company to deal with the Justice Department—the only place in the federal establishment where someone would make a decision and make it stick. If not, the company and its owners were clearly going to be drained by competitors who were and are still being subsidized, reorganized by doctrinaire lawyers who would soon move on and be compelled to answer to no one, and tied down by legislation more dedicated to compromise than to solutions.

There is no joy in “we told you so.” The only job now is to make the situation work again as well as it can. Given time, and a cessation of further government meddling, a competitive scheme may be able to sustain a telecommunication system that functions well and is universally available and affordable.

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