The Merger of AT&T and BellSouth: Thanks for (Almost) Nothing

Right before the new year, without the benefit of a public meeting or vote, the FCC approved the corporate marriage of AT&T and BellSouth. With this $85 billion deal, Ma Bell is basically just two mergers away from being fully-reconstructed.
Harold Feld of the Media Access Project has already compiled an excellent summary of reaction to the deal, though his own perspective is much more optimistic than mine. I understand that AT&T’s commitment to the preservation of network neutrality is key concession made for the deal, but their 24-month pledge to the principle is six months shorter than the initial acquiescence it made when the FCC merger negotiation-debate began months earlier.
Secondly, I am suspicious of the relative weight of symbolic political victories. Network neutrality as a governing principle of how everyone on the Internet communicates with each other is otherwise known as “common carriage” and is fully-enshrined in law for other forms of interstate commerce. But in the case of the Internet it has been dismantled piecemeal by a series of FCC and court decisions over the course of several years. Mobilizing 1.4 million people to give a sh*t enough to engage incrementally to stop a disaster (no conditions on the merger) is a far cry from transforming communications policy more generally into something resembling democratic constructiveness.
The Save the Internet coalition recently constructed a clever graphic to show what we must do, as media activists, to restore the principle of network neutrality to the telecom sector for the long-term. Unfortunately, it ends with Congress actually passing legislation to make network neutrality an explicit point of law again. I realize that this is the first time the Democrats have had (nominal) control of Congress in 13 years, but I don’t trust the Democrats to reject the big money of the largest spenders of campaign cash on Capitol Hill and accomplish anything meaningful on the issue. I hope my skepticism can be proven wrong.
While network neutrality is the only merger condition that’s gotten the most significant press, there are others, like AT&T’s promise to offer low-cost, stand-alone broadband DSL access at discount prices for a limited time. This is probably the second-most important merger condition assented to.
Unfortunately, AT&T can’t deliver.
The week before Christmas I decided to cancel my local phone service with AT&T, but desired to keep my DSL connection. AT&T said this would not be a problem; I’d lose broadband access over a weekend while they reconfigured my line to be a “dry loop” (DSL-only), but by Monday I’d be back in business.
It never happened. First AT&T told me that they discovered that the particular wire-loop I’m on which connects me to my central office was not properly configured for DSL-only service. Then it discovered that all of the switchers in said central office couldn’t handle residential dry loops, and would try to connect me through some sort of patch with another switching point in its network “elsewhere in Illinois.” After that failed, my service order was mysteriously marked “fulfilled” within AT&T’s tracking system, and trying to restart the service order involved some AT&T office sending another various e-mails, which never got answered. This lasted for a week.
That’s when I decided to leave AT&T completely and jump to my local cable broadband provider, Insight. Faster service, cheaper price, and with people I can call on who actually live here when there’s a problem.
I may live in a relatively small town, but it’s got a major research university in it. If AT&T can’t separate dialtone from DSL signals here, I have a hard time believing they have the capability to do it on any widespread basis. That’s a pretty f*cking sad state of affairs.
I never imagined I’d cut from “landline” telephone service completely, and when broadband access first became available DSL providers had the price/performance edge over cable systems. Over the last few years, cable systems have leapfrogged past the phone company in terms of capacity per dollar, and increasing the size and dominance of AT&T won’t turn this around. It may make it actually worse.
That’s because my own experience shows that size, especially in the telecom sector, has a negative impact on service quality. How-the-phone-company-sucks jokes will be coming back into vogue for sure. I recently saw an AT&T billboard that boasted how it gains a new customer every 11 seconds. It’s definitely not because they’re choosing to. Here’s hoping for a positive backlash.