It may take years for all of the ramifications of the AT&T split-up to become clear. But experts who have lived with the case are sure that Ma Bell comes out a leaner, stronger corporate giant than ever before. At the same time, the government finally admitted it had no case against IBM--at least, none it could prove--and had the sense to drop it.

This all fits the grand design of the Reagan administration, which sought to free AT&T and IBM to compete with each other--and, just as important, to go head-to-head in intensifying competition with Japanese high-technology companies, here and abroad. It was no accident --or "serendipity" (as some government officials suggested)--that resulted in dropping the 13-year-old anti-trust case against IBM on the same day an antitrust victory of sorts was achieved in the AT&T case.

The essence of the AT&T deal is the abandonment of a 1956 consent decree, according to which AT&T accepted government regulation in exchange for preserving its telephone monopoly. For AT&T, the bottom line now is that the company gives up its local monopoly, but will be able to enter all aspects of the computer-age information markets, introduce its own products --and not be regulated.

Among the dramatic possibilities is the prospect of bidding for a share of the newspapers' classified ad business. AT&T (and others) could sell a service, through home computers and terminals, enabling customers to "shop" by calling up advertising data on their screens.

When you read the fine print, you discover that the price AT&T pays for this freedom is not so overwhelming is it sounds. Yes, there is "divestiture" of the 22 local operating subsidiaries that have combined assets of $80 billion. But that is only to be a divestiture of the local phone business of those subsidiaries, which will have to turn their long distance business back to Ma Bell. AT&T will remain at least a $40 billion company, free to compete with or even to try to acquire any company it wants to go after. Theoretically, that includes IBM-- even Mobil!

The fact that the much-publicized spin-off of the local operating companies applies only to the local phone business troubles many anti- trust students. As communications expert Henry Geller said in an interview, "AT&T still will have a de facto long distance monopoly-- about 97 percent of the toll business."

AT&T Chairman Charles Brown, therefore, deserves to be ranked as one of the geniuses of the current corporate generation. What he has accomplished is the retention of practically all of the company's high-profit, low-cost operations, while spinning off the local low-profit, high-cost ele- ments. And of course, AT&T retains its prodigiously successful Western Electric manufacturing facilities, and the genius of its Bell Labs.

A natural question is why AT&T did not try earlier to settle the government's antitrust suit in this way if it's so favorable. Insiders I've asked say that Brown represents a new breed of manager, able to look past the philosophy of the old "Mandarins" at AT&T who had an emotional block when it came to giving up the local operating companies.

Tom Kauper, who served in the antitrust division during the Nixon and Ford administrations, thinks there may be a more simple explanation. Kauper, now a professor at the University of Michigan law school, suggests that it is not yet sure that "on balance," the deal is so favorable to AT&T. But by giving up the local phone business, Kauper points out, AT&T has eliminated the risk of what would have been a more adverse conclusion to the government's suit, the loss of a piece of either Bell Labs or Western Electric.

One of the dangers inherent in the new set-up is not only that local telephone service costs will go up--they were headed that way anyway--but that local telephone service will deteriorate qualitatively. Geller, a Commerce Department official during the Carter administration me clear. But experts who have lived with the case are sure that Ma Bell comes out a leaner, stronger corporate giant than ever before. At the same time, the government finally admitted it had no case against IBM--at least, none it could prove--and had the sense to drop it.

This all fits the grand design of the Reagan administration, which sought to free AT&T and IBM to compete with each other--and, just as important, to go head-to-head in intensifying competition with Japanese high-technology companies, here and abroad. It was no accident --or "serendipity" (as some government officials suggested)--that resulted in dropping the 13-year-old anti-trust case against IBM on the same day an antitrust victory of sorts was achieved in the AT&T case.

The essence of the AT&T deal is the abandonment of a 1956 consent decree, according to which AT&T accepted government regulation in exchange for preserving its telephone monopoly. For AT&T, the bottom line now is that the company gives up its local monopoly, but will be able to enter all aspects of the computer-age information markets, introduce its own products --and not be regulated.

Among the dramatic possibilities is the prospect of bidding for a share of the newspapers' classified ad business. AT&T (and others) could sell a service, through home computers and terminals, enabling customers to "shop" by calling up advertising data on their screens.

When you read the fine print, you discover that the price AT&T pays for this freedom is not so overwhelming is it sounds. Yes, there is "divestiture" of the 22 local operating subsidiaries that have combined assets of $80 billion. But that is only to be a divestiture of the local phone business of those subsidiaries, which will have to turn their long distance business back to Ma Bell. AT&T will remain at least a $40 billion company, free to compete with or even to try to acquire any company it wants to go after. Theoretically, that includes IBM-- even Mobil!

The fact that the much-publicized spin-off of the local operating companies applies only to the local phone business troubles many anti- trust students. As communications expert Henry Geller said in an interview, "AT&T still will have a de facto long distance monopoly-- about 97 percent of the toll business."

AT&T Chairman Charles Brown, therefore, deserves to be ranked as one of the geniuses of the current corporate generation. What he has accomplished is the retention of practically all of the company's high-profit, low-cost operations, while spinning off the local low-profit, high-cost ele- ments. And of course, AT&T retains its prodigiously successful Western Electric manufacturing facilities, and the genius of its Bell Labs.

A natural question is why AT&T did not try earlier to settle the government's antitrust suit in this way if it's so favorable. Insiders I've asked say that Brown represents a new breed of manager, able to look past the philosophy of the old "Mandarins" at AT&T who had an emotional block when it came to giving up the local operating companies.

Tom Kauper, who served in the antitrust division during the Nixon and Ford administrations, thinks there may be a more simple explanation. Kauper, now a professor at the University of Michigan law school, suggests that it is not yet sure that "on balance," the deal is so favorable to AT&T. But by giving up the local phone business, Kauper points out, AT&T has eliminated the risk of what would have been a more adverse conclusion to the government's suit, the loss of a piece of either Bell Labs or Western Electric.

One of the dangers inherent in the new set-up is not only that local telephone service costs will go up--they were headed that way anyway--but that local telephone service will deteriorate qualitatively. Geller, a Commerce Department official during the Carter administration and now on the Duke University faculty, sees a danger that the local phone companies will become "the Penn Centrals" of this decade.

Geller asks, and it seems to me a good question, why the local companies should not also be allowed to make efficient use of new technology to compete with Ma Bell, just as Ma Bell is now free to do with everybody else.

These and other fundamental problems that remain unanswered in the wake of the AT&T settlement should of course be dealt with by Congress. But the politicians on Capitol Hill have abdicated to the courts these past many years in seeking to set a national communications policy. The future outlook isn't much bettmay take years for all of the ramifications of the AT&T split-up to beco and now on the Duke University faculty, sees a danger that the local phone companies will become "the Penn Centrals" of this decade.

Geller asks, and it seems to me a good question, why the local companies should not also be allowed to make efficient use of new technology to compete with Ma Bell, just as Ma Bell is now free to do with everybody else.

These and other fundamental problems that remain unanswered in the wake of the AT&T settlement should of course be dealt with by Congress. But the politicians on Capitol Hill have abdicated to the courts these past many years in seeking to set a national communications policy. The future outlook isn't much better.