The Ghosts of Antitrust Past: Part 3 (AT&T)

Alec Stapp —  5 February 2020

The case against AT&T began in 1974. The government alleged that AT&T had monopolized the market for local and long-distance telephone service as well as telephone equipment. In 1982, the company entered into a consent decree to be broken up into eight pieces (the “Baby Bells” plus the parent company), which was completed in 1984. As a remedy, the government required the company to divest its local operating companies and guarantee equal access to all long-distance and information service providers (ISPs).

Source: Mohanram & Nanda

As the chart above shows, the divestiture broke up AT&T’s national monopoly into seven regional monopolies. In general, modern antitrust analysis focuses on the local product market (because that’s the relevant level for consumer decisions). In hindsight, how did breaking up a national monopoly into seven regional monopolies increase consumer choice? It’s also important to note that, prior to its structural breakup, AT&T was a government-granted monopoly regulated by the FCC. Any antitrust remedy should be analyzed in light of the company’s unique relationship with regulators.

Breaking up one national monopoly into seven regional monopolies is not an effective way to boost innovation. And there are economies of scale and network effects to be gained by owning a national network to serve a national market. In the case of AT&T, those economic incentives are why the Baby Bells forged themselves back together in the decades following the breakup.

Source: WSJ

As Clifford Winston and Robert Crandall noted

Appearing to put Ma Bell back together again may embarrass the trustbusters, but it should not concern American consumers who, in two decades since the breakup, are overwhelmed with competitive options to provide whatever communications services they desire.

Moreover, according to Crandall & Winston (2003), the lower prices following the breakup of AT&T weren’t due to the structural remedy at all (emphasis added):

But on closer examination, the rise in competition and lower long-distance prices are attributable to just one aspect of the 1982 decree; specifically, a requirement that the Bell companies modify their switching facilities to provide equal access to all long-distance carriers. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could have promulgated such a requirement without the intervention of the antitrust authorities. For example, the Canadian regulatory commission imposed equal access on its vertically integrated carriers, including Bell Canada, in 1993. As a result, long-distance competition developed much more rapidly in Canada than it had in the United States (Crandall and Hazlett, 2001). The FCC, however, was trying to block MCI from competing in ordinary long-distance services when the AT&T case was filed by the Department of Justice in 1974. In contrast to Canadian and more recent European experience, a lengthy antitrust battle and a disruptive vertical dissolution were required in the U.S. market to offset the FCC’s anti-competitive policies. Thus, antitrust policy did not triumph in this case over restrictive practices by a monopolist to block competition, but instead it overcame anticompetitive policies by a federal regulatory agency.

A quick look at the data on telephone service in the US, EU, and Canada show that the latter two were able to achieve similar reductions in price without breaking up their national providers.

Source: Crandall & Jackson (2011)

The paradigm shift from wireline to wireless

The technological revolution spurred by the transition from wireline telephone service to wireless telephone service shook up the telecommunications industry in the 1990s. The rapid change caught even some of the smartest players by surprise. In 1980, the management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. produced a report for AT&T predicting how large the cellular market might become by the year 2000. Their forecast said that 900,000 cell phones would be in use. The actual number was more than 109 million.

Along with the rise of broadband, the transition to wireless technology led to an explosion in investment. In contrast, the breakup of AT&T in 1984 had no discernible effect on the trend in industry investment:

The lesson for antitrust enforcers is clear: breaking up national monopolies into regional monopolies is no remedy. In certain cases, mandating equal access to critical networks may be warranted. Most of all, technology shocks will upend industries in ways that regulators — and dominant incumbents — fail to predict.