If you're trying to make sense of last week's rush of news from the telecommunications industry, a good place to start is by looking at your monthly phone bills. They're the best clue about where all the mergers and regulatory actions are heading--and how the federal government should ride herd on this corporate stampede.
The first thing your phone bill tells you is that long-distance rates have been plummeting faster than telephone-pitch lady Candace Bergen's movie career. The new era of seven-cents-a-minute long distance--wait, make that five--has come about because of intense competition among three main players--AT&T, Sprint and MCI. The long-distance companies don't like this brawl--it's driving prices and profits toward zero--so they'd dearly love to gobble up a competitor, as MCI WorldCom proposed to do last week with Sprint.
But for consumers, it's pretty obvious that an MCI-Sprint merger isn't a good idea. The robust three-way competition we have now has worked well. Better that Sprint should be acquired by another player--such as Bell South or Deutsche Telekom--that would preserve three strong combatants.
The second thing that's obvious from your phone bill is that you actually get a bunch of different bills from different providers--one for local service, another for long distance, still another from your wireless provider. That's a mess. Consumers don't like it, and neither do the companies--which are all lusting to offer a seamless package of services to cover all your telecom needs.
So the second lesson that comes with your bill is that the industry will inevitably converge toward a few giant companies that will be able to provide these packaged services.
"It's the power of the bundle," is how one Justice Department antitrust lawyer describes this inevitable convergence. He and other sensible trustbusters understand that it's in consumers' interest that these giant national players emerge--so long as there are enough of them to ensure healthy competition.
The final noteworthy thing about your phone bill is that it doesn't charge you for cable or Internet service. For most of us, those are provided by a hodgepodge of companies. But the confusion won't last. Here, too, the power of the bundle will prevail. In a few years, telecommunications, cable and Internet service will have converged into one big industry--let's call it the "pipeline" business. And consumers will benefit, so long as competition remains.
The two people who have to study the nation's phone bills--pronto!--are William Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and Joel Klein, the head of the Justice Department's antitrust division.
Liberal critics charge that Kennard in particular has been asleep at the wheel during the telecom merger wave. They complain that the FCC has done essentially nothing while the number of Baby Bells has shrunk from eight down to four. And they're furious at the FCC's decision Friday to change its merger rules to allow AT&T to acquire cable giant MediaOne.
But there's nothing magical, per se, about having eight Baby Bells rather than four--the vigorous competition in long distance shows that three healthy national combatants are plenty. And there's certainly nothing wrong with mergers that break down the geographical monopolies that were conferred on the Baby Bells by Judge Harold Greene's 1984 consent decree.
To keep up with the telecom stampede, the regulators will have to think strategically, just as the CEOs do. They need to consider where the industry will end up--and how to make that endgame competitive. Broadly, that means following through on the promise of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that companies will compete across existing boundaries.
Kennard and Klein seem to agree on some specific tactical goals, too: They're likely to support Bell Atlantic's bid to offer long-distance service in New York--and SBC's imminent bid to offer long distance in Texas--so long as these Baby Bells allow other companies fair access to their local networks. They're likely to support mergers among wireless carriers, such as Bell Atlantic's bid for Vodaphone, creating nationwide rivals for AT&T's wireless service.
And reading the tea leaves, it seems clear that Kennard and Klein are both skeptical about the merits of MCI WorldCom's $115 billion bid for Sprint--which would appear, in the timeless words of the Clayton Antitrust Act, "substantially to lessen competition."
The corporate tycoons would like to bury antitrust regulators under a blizzard of paper. A good example is Exxon Corp. Chairman Lee Raymond, who was heard chortling to a fellow CEO recently that he had flummoxed the Federal Trade Commission's antitrust probe of his merger with Mobil Corp. by sending the FTC 17,000 boxes of documents.
That sort of corporate hardball is a reminder of why we need vigorous antitrust enforcement--even as we bless some giant mergers as engines of future competition.