AT&T and BellSouth: Why you should care

After its proposed merger with BellSouth, AT&T will in many ways be bigger and stronger than its monopolistic predecessor, Ma Bell.

Watchdog groups believe the outcome of a quiet political battle over which restrictions to impose on the AT&T and BellSouth merger will affect consumers for years to come.

When the AT&T monopoly was broken up in 1984 by antitrust regulators, it was divided into seven Bell operating companies. After this merger, there will be three companies. The new AT&T will become the nation's dominant phone company, controlling more than half the telephone and Internet access lines in the U.S.

In many ways, the new AT&T will be even stronger than the old Ma Bell because today's company competes in many more markets, including business and consumer data services and paid television. And therein lies the problem. A supersize AT&T, some worry, could have the ability to jack up wholesale line-leasing rates it charges to smaller carriers--a cost that would ultimately be passed on to consumers.

"When you create an entity that is this large, it makes future competition impossible," said Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America.

Certainly, such fears are tempered by the notion that the telecommunications industry has changed in the past 20 years. New phone competitors such as the cable TV operators have emerged, giving most Americans at least two choices for their broadband and phone services.

But as the cliche goes, the devil will be in the details of this $80 billion deal, which was first announced in March. Department of Justice and state regulators have already approved the merger, and the question now is what restrictions the Federal Communications Commission will place on the newly minted AT&T.

On Thursday, the five-member commission, which is split on the issue along party lines, delayed a vote on the merger. A fifth commissioner, a Republican named Robert McDowell, has a potential swing vote. But he has recused himself, because before joining the commission last June, he represented an industry group strongly opposed to the merger. Now, there's speculation that the general counsel for the FCC may instruct McDowell to un-recuse himself to break the deadlock.

"The most likely scenario is that McDowell will be asked to vote," said Blair Levin, who was chief of staff for former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and is now a telecommunications industry analyst for Stifel, Nicolaus & Company. "And that will certainly change the negotiation and move things closer to an end game."

McDowell hasn't indicated publicly how he might vote if asked to participate, but some people believe his previous relationship with companies opposed to the merger has backed him into a corner.

"I'm quite certain he would prefer not to vote on this merger," Levin said. "But if he does vote, I'm sure there will be people on either side that criticize him for whichever way he votes."

Behind-the-scenes dominance At first glance, the AT&T and BellSouth merger doesn't appear to affect consumers directly. The companies offer telephone and DSL service in different regions of the country. And only in a few instances do they compete head-to-head for business customers, due to last year's merger between long-distance carrier AT&T and local phone company SBC Communications.

Instead, consumers will likely feel the impact of the merger indirectly, because a combined AT&T and BellSouth will have more control over the wholesale communications market. Together, AT&T and BellSouth would control more than half the access telephone infrastructure in the United States.

Why would that be a problem? Infrastructure companies such as EarthLink must lease lines to provide competitive broadband service. Since the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the government has regulated pricing and access to this infrastructure. But over the past decade, the FCC has steadily scaled back its regulation, leaving the phone companies to negotiate unregulated commercial rates directly with their competitors.

Opponents to the merger fear that a bigger AT&T could use its newfound dominance in the wholesale access market to jack up rates, forcing out of business competitors that use its so-called local access loops. And fewer competitors would mean fewer choices for consumers, they argue.

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