When AT&T ruled the world

In the 20th century, there was no greater technological giant than AT&T. The company started by Alexander Graham Bell (who may or may not have actually invented the telephone) dominated the century by introducing innovation after innovation. In 1900, calling someone on the phone was still pretty amazing, but the company rolled out improvement after improvement to their products as the decades rolled on. AT&T engineers also invented the transistor, the single most meaningful improvement to computing technology ever. The transistor is found, literally by the millions, in every electronic item we have today. AT&T pioneered communications satellites, and even in a very real way invented video chat. Long before FaceTime and Skype, AT&T showed picturephone service in 1964. It didn’t take off because of the high price, but it still counts. They pioneered “high-speed” data (.13Mbps) with ISDN, which was “the” networking technology of the 1980s and 1990s. AT&T was, at one time, “the shizz.”

It was so powerful, so popular, that the government stepped in. Despite some regional competitors like GTE, Centel, Northern Telecom and ITT, AT&T at one time controlled virtually all the long-distance and data communication in this country. Between 1974 and 1982, AT&T and government regulators worked to find a way to make AT&T more customer-friendly and less anticompetitive. The result was that local service was broken up by region and long distance became deregulated so other companies could do it.

This gave birth to most of the major communications companies we know today. One of these local companies merged with GTE to become Verizon, another became CenturyTel, and yet another, originally known as Southwestern Bell, became so rich and powerful that they actually bought AT&T in 2005. Sprint started out as a provider of cheap long distance calls. Former AT&T executives fanned out to build companies like Charter, Comcast, and T-Mobile, too.

This is a long and drawn out way of saying, when you really think about it the history of AT&T is the history of the 20th century… and on into the 21st. The company is so good, so strong, that you can’t even really break it up; while not a monopoly anymore, it’s still the dominant force in television, cellular, internet, and yes, even long distance and local calling. AT&T is still innovating and in some weird way… maybe they still even rule the world. Maybe I shouldn’t say that so loudly — there’s always the possibility that the government will try to act to block them again and we don’t want that.