Goodbye, Ma Bell

February 10, 2005|By Joseph R. L. Sterne

MA BELL is dying.

Over the course of a century and more, the old gal became the motherly persona of a company, American Telephone and Telegraph, which at one time was the largest, richest corporation in the world. As late as 1981, just three years before federal courts ordered the AT&T monopoly broken, a historian predicted that "the continuing dominance of AT&T in the world of telephony seems inevitable."

Frail and failing, Ma was devoured just the other day by one of her own offspring, SBC Communications Inc., once the smallest of the Baby Bells, now a jaunty adolescent that is the biggest operator in the bewildering field of Internet, broadband, wireless, satellite, cable and even plain old telephones attached to plain old land lines.

The new communications conglomerate may keep the venerable AT&T name in some form subordinate to the SBC rubric. But as the amalgamation goes global, the headquarters will be in Texas, not New Jersey, and most of the employees who will get the ax will predictably be those who work for Ma Bell.

Before this $16 billion deal is completed, it is worth remembering how paternalistic AT&T became maternalistic in the minds of its tens of millions of customers. For it was not always so.

After Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876 and acquired the patents that ensured success, his company operated much as the other baronies of the early industrial age. It was brass-knuckled with competitors, rapacious in the rates it charged, tight-fisted with wages and contemptuous of the public.

For a company that considered itself a private natural monopoly, this approach incurred the displeasure of progressives insisting that the United States should nationalize its phone system as all other nations were doing.

Those were the days when financier J. P. Morgan said, "I owe the public nothing," and railroad baron William Henry Vanderbilt said, "The public be damned." But as the public's rage escalated and AT&T was losing ground to fierce independent telephone companies playing the local, hometown card, Mr. Morgan stepped in and hired Theodore Vail, the greatest man in telephone industry history.

Instead of defending his monopoly against those who considered it evil, Mr. Vail praised it as an asset beneficial to all of society. Instead of fighting the independents, he appeased them, confident that in the end they would be subordinate to the nationwide scope of AT&T. And instead of corporate secrecy, Mr. Vail opted for transparency under the mantra of "One System, One Policy, Universal Service."

AT&T promoted itself as the company that ended the isolation of farmers in a largely rural country, that offered help for every telephone user caught in a personal emergency, that made it possible for customers to amuse themselves by chatting at length or listening in for gossip on party lines.

The Vail approach hit upon the idea of using employees, not bosses, to promote the idea of service to customers. The first heroes were linemen shown in heroically illustrated ads as they battled snow, ice, wind and cold to keep telephone wires intact - all very masculine.

But what created the Ma Bell phenomenon was all very feminine - the telephone operators who were everybody's friend in the days when a real person hand-connected every call. Operators were told to be cheery and chirpy, patient and polite - a message hammered home by years of advertisements.

Such stuff created the Ma Bell image. It goes back a long way, an eon before automatic switching and recorded voices. But as the funeral rites for AT&T unfold, note how often Ma Bell is nostalgically invoked.

Joseph R. L. Sterne is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute of Policy Studies and former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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