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The AT&T merger and you

The multibillion-dollar marriage of the two behemoths affects life in ways that boggle the mind.

Well, it's official: AT&T owns me.

It started out innocently enough--I had been reasonably happy for several years with my AT&T long distance phone service. So when the company offered me a sweet deal for an AT&T Universal MasterCard with perks tied to my long distance service, I thought, "Why not?"

Then, a few years later, the Web came along, and it seemed natural enough to get Internet access from AT&T WorldNet--especially with the lower long distance rates, online bill information, and other treats the company offered for bundling the services.

And, coincidentally, when I moved to San Francisco from New York, I signed up for cable service with the only game in town: TCI.

Now, with the two behemoths merging, all my links to the outside world come from one company: getting information from the Net or TV (and newspapers as well, since I read the New York Times online, except for Sunday), making purchases--even talking to my loved ones back East.

What's so amazing about this is that customers of all stripes now will find themselves in the same Orwellian position I'm in--without even trying.

We as consumers have seen our choices consistently diminish all over the place. Decades ago, newspapers began to die off and consolidate, as two- and three-paper cities watched the competition dwindle down to one (and in some instances, none). Big corporations started buying out media outlets, such as General Electric's purchase of NBC. Then there are the monster bank mergers; I once spent hours doing research, trying to decide between Chase Manhattan and Chemical in New York, only to see them join forces a few months later.

And now, telecommunication services have followed suit, with today's AT&T-TCI deal and the giant WorldCom-MCI proposed merger. Our services have become mired in billion-dollar marriages and long-winded antitrust lawsuits.

The way this affects average users goes far beyond the obvious. If you are a music lover, as I am, perhaps you get music news and information from SonicNet. Guess what? TCI owns it. And AT&T has its hand in music delivery technology with a2b Music.

Think about it: You could potentially read about a telecast concert in TCI-owned TV Guide, see the band on MTV while watching AT&T-owned TCI cable TV, sign on to the Net via AT&T's WorldNet service, go to an AT&T-owned music site (SonicNet) to learn more about it, listen to audio clips delivered via AT&T Labs technology, then buy the CD using your AT&T credit card. Yikes!

The fallout boggles the mind. Personally, I'm beginning to worry that AT&T will buy the Gap.