PHILADELPHIA -- How soon will it be before Bell Atlantic Corp. and its stockholders begin to see the results of last week's landmark ruling that will let the company offer "information services?"
Give it two or three years, say managers and analysts. Don't hold your breath, say critics of the ruling.
"I don't think we can overestimate the impact of this ruling on our future," Bell Atlantic chairman Raymond W. Smith told employees on Friday, and he sketched for them a few of the "reasonably well-laid plans" the company has made to deal with its new-found freedom.
The ruling came on Thursday, a reluctant gift from U.S. District Judge Harold Greene, who has continued to play a significant role in telecommunications policy since overseeing the breakup of the AT&T monopoly in 1984. Greene ruled Thursday that the regional Bell operating companies -- there are six besides Bell Atlantic -- could offer information services.
It is difficult to describe information service because the term is so broad. In short, it is the content of virtually anything that can be sent over a telephone wire. And, thanks to fiber-optic cable and other technology, that can include images on a computer or television screen as well as voices.
The phone system is like a pipeline. Information services are anything that can be sent through the pipe.
Greene and others did not think that the Bell companies ought to own both the pipeline and the goods being moved through it because of the potential for favoring their own services and discouraging others'. To make sure the phone company was like a "common carrier," neutrally offering the same terms to all comers, Greene originally decreed that none of the Bell companies could offer information services.
The Bell companies appealed that decision, and last week Greene said previous rulings left him no legal choice but to lift his prohibition. At the same time, though, he issued a stay, preventing his ruling from taking effect pending any appeals.
Before Bell Atlantic or any of the other Bells can take advantage of the ruling, the stay must be lifted.
What services are likely to be first? One likely example is an improvement of electronic mail.
Typed electronic messages can be sent from one personal-computer user to the screen of another, over the telephone lines. But as soon as Bell Atlantic is allowed to offer an information service, it can expand the service by taking the original signal and manipulating it. If the intended recipient of a message doesn't have a computer but does have a facsimile machine, the electronic-mail message can be delivered as a fax.
The computers that run the phone network also can be used to store images and information. Bell Atlantic executives frequently point to the possibility of storing an individual's voice print, so that the network can instantly recognize a caller.