New Telecom Era ... Same Old AT&T Tactics

Just before Christmas, the Federal Communications Commission freed Bell Atlantic to go into the long-distance business for its customers in New York.

The reaction? MCI WorldCom Inc. and Sprint said fine, let's compete. Many competitive local exchange carriers said OK, we'll just keep ordering local loops from Bell Atlantic. Users generally said the fewer restrictions, the better.

AT&T said we're gonna sue.

Well, isn't that just so 20th century of them?

Regular readers of this column know that one of the enduring truths about carriers is that they all say one thing on Wall Street and the opposite in Washington. If there was ever a more brazen example of this than AT&T's behavior at the end of 1999, I can't think of it.

Not three weeks before the FCC's Bell Atlantic decision, AT&T's bigwigs gathered together hundreds of analysts in New York for a daylong brag-fest.

They showed a TV ad now running in New York offering combined AT&T local and long-distance service to consumers. Then they projected that the number of such AT&T "all- distance" customers in the state would zoom from the current 100,000 to about 750,000 at year-end 2000 because of AT&T's brilliant marketing.

Yet when the FCC gave Bell Atlantic the long-distance nod, AT&T's lobbyists roared that Bell Atlantic's local-competition systems weren't up to the task.

In their lawsuit, they claimed AT&T would now have to either abandon the New York local market or "ramp up its orders for local service" at a time when Bell Atlantic's systems "will profoundly degrade AT&T's reputation for providing quality service."

So which is it, AT&T? Why are your marketing folks planning a huge local ramp-up if it's going to destroy the brand? Or is this just about AT&T wanting to continue charging a monthly fee on its best long-distance plans -- something the Bells promise not to do?

But there are bigger issues involved here than either AT&T's or Bell Atlantic's parochial interests. Telecom's ridiculously outdated local/ long-distance dichotomy has distorted everything from toll charges to area code arguments, and it's time to start getting rid of it.

And there are unusual dangers in AT&T's opposition, which is based on the claim that orders to switch local service don't always flow seamlessly through Bell Atlantic's electronic systems. Basically, AT&T wants some judge to rule that Bell Atlantic isn't perfect. Well, as more than one network manager has pointed out to me, it's not as if AT&T never misses an installation date. How'd AT&T like to have a court probe into its order-entry and billing systems?

Everyone agrees the telecom industry in the 21st century has to stop being about legal warfare and start being about competition and innovation. Perhaps AT&T should join the new era now that it's under way. And no letters about how the 21st century doesn't really begin until next year, thank you very much.

(Rohde is a senior editor with Network World. He can be reached at drohde@nww.com.)

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