Let Freedom Bring

To some people, the instances of very large communications companies buying other large companies is a signal that federally mandated deregulation of the telecommunications industry is backfiring. What we are ending up with, critics argue, is a structure of massive conglomerates that is bad for business users and consumers.

As business consumers of telecommunications services, IT professionals can speak out with a loud voice, collectively or individually, on matters of public regulatory policy. My purpose with this column is to convince you that the critics of deregulation are misguided. In the Internet age, size doesn’t matter like it once did. What matters is speed, versatility and customer service.

Let’s flash back to the early 1980s, the final days of the highly regulated telecommunications world. I had just moved to a new home and was dealing with "The Phone Company" to install various lines in the house. What should have been simple became a major problem. I wanted an additional phone line, unlisted, brought to a specific place in the home.

Installers put it in the wrong place. I was told it could be moved, but not soon -- and it would cost me. This prompted me to make several calls to the phone company, finally reaching someone who agreed I shouldn’t be charged for their mistake.

The phone was installed and the number was listed in directory assistance. The phantom caller that had bothered us with crank calls to our previous number began calling right away. That’s why we wanted the unlisted service in the first place. So I went back to the phone company, which promised to fix the problem. A new number was issued, it was not listed publicly, but the phone went dead.

When I called yet again to complain, I was out of patience. But my impatience elicited a response that crystallized what is wrong with regulation: "Why complain? It’s not as though you have a choice." Exactly.

Now, fast forward to summer 1999. My business phone service is provided by WorldCom. The company didn’t exist in the early 1980s, but has grown by acquiring large companies, such as MCI and UUNet.

One day I got a call from AT&T. No, not the old phone company, but a new, revved-up version driven by a CEO named Michael Armstrong. AT&T wanted my long distance business back. The company offered me a per-minute rate much lower than my WorldCom rate. I called WorldCom to tell them the good news.

WorldCom immediately lowered my rate, not down to the AT&T rate, but lower nonetheless. Then they piled on extras, such as a one-time billing credit; a regular monthly credit; frequent flyer miles. The only thing missing were the Ginsu knives. What the heck, I stayed with WorldCom.

So big companies can’t or won’t compete?

Consider another example. For years my cable TV provider, Time Warner, has not been good. They have consistently raised rates without improving service, while also failing to provide what every other community surrounding my town has: cable modem Internet access.

Time Warner’s franchise in this area was bought last spring by cable giant MediaOne. Then AT&T plunked down $54 billion for MediaOne, a deal to be consummated by next spring. Now my cable provider is giving a specific date, early in 2000, when cable Internet access will at last come to my town, and cheaply, too.

Telecommunications deregulation works, and it works very well -- even when big companies swallow other big companies and become behemoths. What we have seen in terms of added services and sharply falling communications prices is only the beginning, provided deregulation continues. Once deregulation becomes global, which it is on the way to becoming, it will spawn even more competition and more huge companies.

Business users like yourself have a voice in matters like these. If the occasion presents itself, tell the regulators and let freedom ring -- literally! --Bill Laberis is president of Bill Laberis Associates Inc. (Holliston, Mass.) and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld. Contact him at bill@laberis.com.