Tuesday, March 7, 2006

To Watch It All a Second Time, Press 9

When Wall Street cheers, hang on to your wallet. The denizens of the financial community are currently in love with the sixty-three-thousand-million dollar deal that reunites AT&T with Bell South to cobble together a monopoly the feds broke up in 1984.


1984? George Orwell’s 1984? You mean ‘big brother’ will be watching us again? Yeah, well . . .


Callcenters_1My take on it is that the telephone companies became obsolete in this increasingly digital world because they basically no longer had anything to sell that we wanted. Who needed a hard-wired telephone when you could slip one in your pocket and make phone calls on the way to the supermarket? Even grandma glommed on to the technology, thrilled that she could hear from her daughter in Europe, while weeding the string-beans. Or maybe not so thrilled, you never know about mother-daughter relationships, but you get my drift.


As the sands shifted out from under them, knowing no better, the steel-rimmed-spectacle folks that ran the phone companies did what you’d expect them to do—


  • FibreopticinstallDug up your and my front sidewalks, laying fibre-optic cable this time.

  • Groused about the cost and laid off the remaining humans we depended upon, those wonderful operators who actually spoke to us, replacing them with a laundry-list of automated ‘press this’ and ‘press that.’

  • Allowed telemarketers into our dining rooms because, what the hell, they were an income stream, no matter they drove us nuts.

But hardly had the last fibre-optic been tamped into place, when satellite dishes bloomed on our collective rooftops, Wi-Fi took the Internet off phone lines and the world, in what seemed to be a single, exhilarating breath, broke free of Ma Bell’s apron strings. Long distance? Forget about it, Skype brought free long distance, computer to computer.


So, it seems to me that what Wall Street is hoping for is profiting from a last, small, window of opportunity to hustle the public before the fat lady sings.


The merger of AT&T with Bell South will consolidate a shrinking market and allow the conglomerate to fire an additional 10,000 employees, added to the already doomed 26,000 to be pink-slipped. Finally, the ultimate goal of that continued shrinkage will be met, a single remaining employee to be pensioned off. Thus Wall Street celebrates a feeding-frenzy that replicates piranha stripping the flesh of a cow, mid-stream in the Amazon.


Who says investors have no heart?


SatelliteTechnology eats its young and we’re a long, long way from the days of Tom Edison and Al Bell. Moore’s Law, the doubling of computer chip capacity every eighteen months, brought us blindingly powerful personal computers, the Internet, Google and the demise of the phone company. All the winners on that list were infrastructure-free and the most visible loser had a myriad of phone poles, switching stations, employees, wiring in buildings and buried cables.


It's as if, in addition to building cars no one seems to want, Ford and GM had to build and maintain the roads as well.


The Justice Department and the FCC still have to weigh in on the proposed merger, but this last gasp won’t likely be stopped, because it is a last gasp and might conceivably capitalize replacement of the steel-rimmed crowd with chip-jockeys. “Over time, AT&T officials suggested that consumers will benefit as it offers more products that meld its wireless and wireline services.”


Sounds like the phone folks are still standing flat-footed at the plate, the count 2 and 0, technology winding up its 98 mile-an-hour fastball.


AttlabsConsumer advocates worry that the phone folks plan charges to both consumers and providers of Internet access for their ‘end line’ access. Not bloody likely. A move like that would not only bring another 1987-like antitrust action, but would spur emerging technologies, like the already-proven use of home electrical wiring as a receiver for Internet transmission.


Ultimately, one shining asset remains, the AT&T Labs. A consistent technological leader for over a hundred years, it’ll no doubt be sold off in the final throes. Of course, as has been proven elsewhere, final throes mean different things to different people.


In the meanwhile, press 9 to watch an industry make all the same mistakes just one more time.
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See Taking My Country Personally on my personal web site.