3 min read

AT&T Operator? Information Please...

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

All the king's horses
And all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again

*But in the end, the telecommunications industry did one better.

For decades, companies and households had but one supplier to turn to for all of their telephony needs: Ma Bell.  More formally known as AT&T and represented through local Bell Operating Companies such as New York Telephone and Pacific Bell, Ma Bell was reminiscent of a kind but stern parent, happy to provide a dial tone but not letting others compete for their children’s attention.

Yesterday the new AT&T opened its doors for business, with a resplendent new logo (I'll reserve my comments on the redesign).  The company is the largest supplier of telecommunications services to business in the U.S., which makes it a key provider in support of collaboration tools.  AT&T also holds a 60 percent ownership interest in Cingular Wireless.  This is where things get confusing.

Almost a dozen years ago, AT&T bought McCaw Cellular, which the company immediately renamed AT&T Wireless.  In 2000, AT&T Wireless became a separate division, in anticipation of spinning it off, which AT&T did in 2001.  After a few years of going their own way, the two companies formed a partnership to bundle AT&T Wireless service with AT&T wireless offerings.  In 2004, Cingular bought AT&T Wireless.  As part of the deal, AT&T got the AT&T brand back for wireless offerings and the former AT&T Wireless customers became Cingular customers.  Cingular and AT&T had both moved from TDMA to GSM for their networks so it was a nice fit.

Last year, AT&T, recognizing it needed such an offering, signed a deal with Sprint to offer Sprint wireless service (which uses CDMA, not GSM).  Before anything came out of this relationship, SBC, which owns 60% of Cingular, bought AT&T and the merged company assumed the AT&T brand.  It probably won't be long until Cingular customers start seeing the AT&T brand.

Of course, SBC's purchase of AT&T is part of what was referred to as the Humpty Dumpty theory at the time of the break-up of the Bell System, when observers (including myself) noted that it was not inconceivable that one of the Baby Bells could reverse divestiture in whole or in part with acquisitions.

So, in case you missed it:

  • Nynex was purchased by Bell Atlantic in 1997 
  • Pacific Bell was purchased by SBC (née Southwestern Bell) in 1998
  • Ameritech was purchased by SBC in 1999
  • US West merged with Qwest, a long distance and fiber optics company, in 2000
  • Bell Atlantic purchased GTE, which was a non-AT&T regional operating company, in 2000, and changed its name to Verizon

In 2002, when the WorldCom bankruptcy filing eclipsed even that of Enron, Bellheads savored the fairly brief moment when it appeared that AT&T had outlasted MCI (then part of WorldCom).  

Last year, WorldCom emerged from bankruptcy protection as MCI, after nearly collapsing from an $11 billion accounting fraud.  MCI was a shadow of its former self, but it did have a worldwide voice and data network that was highly desirable.  Although the company's capacity is about half that of AT&T, only Sprint, a distant third, remains as an independent supplier of voice and data communications services.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.