Ma Bell 2.0

22 Mar

Now that I have a public forum where I can voice my opinion however I choose, I’m going to make short work of alienating everyone. Let’s get started!

Today, I learned that AT&T has crafted a deal to purchase T-Mobile USA. As a long-time T-Mobile customer, I’m concerned that my options will be limited by AT&T. I chose T-Mobile over other wireless carriers because the company offered the most affordable plans, and I’ve remained with them because their customer service has been exemplary (can you say that about your wireless provider? Really, about anything these days?). Now I fear that fantastic customer service and unlimited data access will become a distant memory – and the competition can’t fill this T-Mo shaped void¹ .

It is natural that I would consider how this might affect me, personally – but I am also leery of the broad impact on the telecommunications industry.

First, some history of telecommunications²: everyone knows the telephone was invented by Elisha Gray, Alexander Graham Bell, right? Bell’s namesake companies provided telephone service to America and were franchises at first – but were acquired by the American Telegraph and Telephone company in 1899. You may recognize the American Telegraph and Telephone company by it’s abbreviated name: AT&T. AT&T (and it’s affiliated Bell companies, nicknamed ‘Ma Bell’) held a monopoly on the telephone industry for nearly a century, until 1984.

Ma Bell’s stranglehold on the new telephone market was such that users could only connect devices manufactured for or subsidized by the wireless carrier Bell to the network without rooting and unlocking paying a penalty. Wait, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it, iPhone users?

Long before the threat of the ‘Big Four’ being reduced to the ‘Big Three,’ consumers have suffered from lack of choice in the wireless market. From early-termination fees to limited handset offerings (not to mention crippled Bluetooth or app-blocking), wireless carriers have found legal ways to hold you a captive customer. If you want a Droid, you have to be a Verizon customer, and – until recently – if you wanted an iPhone, you were forced to negotiate with AT&T. This is no different than your cable company dictating what kind of television you should own.

The industry has long argued that technology has dictated the kinds of phones they could make available, and I concede this has been a fair argument. Verizon and Sprint use a kind of transmission technology called CDMA, while AT&T and T-Mobile have used GSM. Without getting overly technical, the differences between these technologies (and their associated radio frequencies) have been the dominant reason why a person cannot use a Verizon-branded phone on an AT&T network (and by extension, why GSM users have SIM chips, while CDMA users do not).

With the roll-out of LTE (long-term evolution) networks, the differences between networks will all but disappear. So, to – one would think – should the age of carrier-limited handset choice.

¹Yes, this entire post may seem dramatic. Who cares this much about a phone company, anyhow? Well, at least 1 in 7,000,000,000 people does. I am heavily reliant on my smartphone for work and for play, and it represents one of my biggest monthly expenses.


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Posted by on March 22, 2011 in Telecommunications


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