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D.F. Krause
  D.F.'s Column Archive
March 8, 2006
Someone Call Arnold! It's the Cyborg AT&T-100!

One of the coolest scenes in Terminator 2 is when the nice Terminator (Arnold) makes the evil Terminator (Robert Patrick, aka the T-1000) disintegrate into thousands of little pieces by dousing him with liquid nitrogen. But we soon see that it makes no difference, because this is a very advanced cyborg, and the thousands of little pieces start crawling along the pavement back toward each other, until they reform and the T-1000 is stalking Arnold once again.


See? Even smashing the T-1000 to pieces couldn’t keep it from reforming and once again becoming a powerful force.


Sort of like AT&T.


The breakup of the AT&T phone monopoly was one of the heralded anti-trust events of the 1980s. A company that powerful and dominant in the market would surely become a scourge to consumers, who would have no competitive choices to help keep prices under control.


So, Uncle Sam said, we’re pouring liquid nitrogen all over you! To pieces you go – nevermore to terrorize innocent phone customers.


It all seemed like such a good plan at the time. AT&T nodded, tucked its tail between its legs and said, “You’re right. We will let you smash us to pieces because for us to be so big and powerful is no good for anyone. Well, except for us, but we guess that’s not what you had in mind.”


So that solved that.


All those cute little Baby Bells handled the local service, and when new choices like Sprint and MCI showed up on the long distance market, Cliff Robertson was able to convince enough people that AT&T was “the right choice” that everything seemed fine for everyone.


Well. You know, that T-1000 was from the future, and maybe that’s why he didn’t get overly nonplussed when Arnold smashed him to pieces. He knew that in the future, it is really easy to reconstitute yourself after having been smashed to pieces.


And now that we are living in the future – The Year Two Thousand Six! (where are the commuter flights to Jupiter that we were promised in 1979?) – we see that this also applies to cyborg businesses. AT&T didn’t really go away quietly at all. It slowly reconstituted itself.


Last year, when AT&T merged with SBC, it was the biggest step yet in the reconstitution of the cyborg – sort of like the part where all the little droplets of cyborg goo finally coalesce into one piece. This week, we learned that AT&T has acquired Bell South. Suddenly, it’s starting to look like the T-1000 again. Of the seven regional phone companies that were separated from AT&T in the original court-ordered breakup, four are now back in the fold.


The new, bigger, more cyborgic AT&T has $120 billion in annual revenues – making it the largest communication company in America by the decisive margin. And “consumer advocate” types are scared. Gene Kimmelman, public policy director of Consumers Union, calls the deal “devastating” for consumers. Of course, he may have said that about one or two other things previously.


Democratic Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts is using interesting metaphors to express his horror. "Twenty years after the government broke up Ma Bell, this deal represents a mother-and-child reunion," Markey said.


At least he doesn’t give you false hope on a strange and mournful day.


But it is no longer the 1980s, and today’s AT&T looks to dominate markets like high-speed internet, video and wireless phones. AT&T Chairman Edward Whitacre is so excited about the deal that he is putting off his planned 2006 retirement until 2008.


The lesson of all this? Perhaps it’s going too far to say that business is like a cyborg from the future who appears naked in a parking garage in Los Angeles in 1984. But the next time the government decides a business has gotten too big and needs to be taken down a notch (see: Microsoft, Wal-Mart), it might need to prepare itself for the possibility that the market is a more powerful force than even government.


Of course, the T-1000 eventually ended up in a burning vat of lava, and even a merger with Bell South couldn’t save him. Then again, he did show up a few years later on the X-Files – working for the Justice Department, no less!


Market forces win again. They always do.


© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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