WASHINGTON -- In a battle of two titans in the telecommunications industry, American Telephone & Telegraph Co. moved yesterday to block Britain's biggest phone company from gaining broader access to the U.S. market until AT&T is allowed to compete in Britain.
Both AT&T and British Telecommunications PLC want to provide everything from phone service to high-speed data transmission and video services to multinational companies. These private global corporate networks represent one of the hottest segments of the telecommunications industry, and all the world's phone giants are vying for the business.
Long-distance carriers like AT&T or MCI Communications can now provide long-distance service only up to the borders of most foreign countries, including Britain. From that point, phone calls must be carried by local firms like British Telecom.
British Telecom faces similar though less onerous rules in the United States. Last month, the British giant startled the U.S. long-distance industry by asking the Federal Communications Commission for permission to provide an array of network services between the United States and Britain for corporations.
In essence, U.S. corporations that sign up with British Telecom would be able to dial their London offices and transmit bulky computer data or hold video conferences as easily as they now communicate across town -- perhaps even by dialing just a four-digit number.
AT&T said it applied for a license yesterday to offer communications services in Britain and urged the FCC to withhold approval of British Telecom's bid. AT&T officials argue that the British telephone industry remains far more closed to competition than the American industry.
British Telecom, AT&T asserts, still has a near-monopoly in Britain and can sharply restrict entry by all competitors.
In particular, AT&T officials said, rival long-distance carriers must generally go through British Telecom to provide customers the local links in their global networks.
But British Telecom officials say that Britain had gone to great lengths to deregulate its telephone market and that its restrictions were no more onerous than those in the United States.