"The U.S.A. Is Only A Few Minutes Wide"
October 25, 2010 6:10 PM   Subscribe

was thinking about ma bell and ATT earlier, and how bbs culture was pretty anti-telecom...fihgting for control of the internet through browsers, oses, and all of that seems pretty irrelevant when people push a facebook button on their wireless phone.
posted by lslelel at 6:20 PM on October 25, 2010

lslelel: Well, BBS culture was pretty anti-telcom because if the phone company had it's way, there wouldn't have been a BBS culture at all.
posted by absalom at 6:48 PM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love TV ads for the Bell System. Since they were a monopoly, they're weren't trying to compete with other companies. They were competing with letters or just not communicating at all. They were ads for the telephone itself. (Some of these may be post-breakup, but they still had the same spirit.)

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posted by ALongDecember at 6:51 PM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

lslelel: Well, BBS culture was pretty anti-telcom because if the phone company had it's way, there wouldn't have been a BBS culture at all.

Actually the reason old modems used a crazy microphone-speaker system where you literally placed the receiver on the device wasn't technical at all. It would have been easy to connect directly to the phone line. It was that AT&T banned users from connecting any devices they hadn't approved.
posted by delmoi at 7:10 PM on October 25, 2010

This is so cool, the 60's stuff is even familar. my grandfather worked for Bell, 1926-1962.
he would have loved this.
posted by clavdivs at 8:47 PM on October 25, 2010

They were ads for the telephone itself.

In a sense, yes, but they were more than that: they were creating a warm, family/community brand for AT&T in an era when it had begun to feel serious competition for the first time from MCI, GTE and others. AT&T had an image as a faceless monopoly. In the 1969 satire The President's Analyst, "TPC" ("the phone company") was portrayed as even more powerful and sinister than the government. The 1984 "death star" logo for AT&T was considered elegantly appropriate.

The ads were also specifically encouraging long-distance telephony, which in those days was expensive, per-minute rated, compared to usually unmetered local calling. The phone bill was a trigger for many a household conversation. AT&T wanted the associations of being put in touch with a person you cared about to override cost concerns.
posted by dhartung at 10:02 PM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Every time anyone talks about Ma Bell, I find myself nostalgic, and I was born after the breakup. I realize that there were greed and corruption and the military-industrial complex in the days of Eddy Haskell, too, but it's refreshing to think about a time when there was simply "the phone company." These people were in charge of the phones, full stop. (I realize I'm confounding telephone and telegram lingo here) Sure people complained about Ma Bell, but we were innocent enough as a nation (again, I realize that this is a nostalgic revisionist history trap) that this really didn't bother anybody.

People worry today about net neutrality, which is worthwhile and important for the future of free speech, but not too long ago, there were three ways to communicate farther than shouting: Ma Bell, the Post Office Department (NOT the postal "service"), and Western Union telegrams. One of these organizations was literally the government, and the other two were so embedded in the military-industrial complex that they might as well have been.

However many teraflops of black-funding computing power the NSA is using to eavesdrop on our IRC channels with cyborg efficiency and no judicial oversight, we have to admit we've come a long way from condoms and boxing films being illegal to send through the mail or J. Edgar Hoover ringing up Mabel at the switchboard to have all of your calls routed to a wire recorder in his office.
posted by LiteOpera at 11:13 PM on October 25, 2010

not sure why i qualified anti-telecom with 'pretty'...that was dumb =) yeah. anti-telecom...unapologetic...
posted by lslelel at 11:44 AM on October 26, 2010

Sure people complained about Ma Bell, but we were innocent enough as a nation (again, I realize that this is a nostalgic revisionist history trap) that this really didn't bother anybody.

Yeah, I think you're looking through some pretty heavily rose-tinted glasses there.

I've noticed that since the breakup, there has been a resurgence of nostalgic Bell System / AT&T love that as far as I can tell is without precedent back when they were in control of things. Things may have been "simpler" when AT&T/Bell were running the show as a monopoly, but they were staggeringly expensive compared to post-breakup telecommunications today.

I remember waiting to make long-distance calls in the evening when "the rates dropped," and gathering everyone who wanted to talk to Grandma in the same room so that the phone could be handed around quickly -- time is money and you don't want to waste it when the clock is ticking! (In contrast, yesterday I left a call open and off-hook for five hours, and most of the time I wasn't even talking. It's easier just to put it on hold or mute than redial. But it doesn't matter, because voice telecom has literally become too cheap to meter.)

The Bell System was certainly not without merit. It brought universal service and standardization to what might have otherwise been a patchwork of incompatible systems. AT&T Long Lines built a system of backbones that no single company in a more competitive environment might have been able to justify the capital expenditures for. The research done at Bell Labs was unlike just about any other corporate lab, at the time or currently, and seemed to find a sweet spot between pure research and commercial applications that we've yet to replicate precisely. I'm not trying to shit on the accomplishments of the system.

But to say that it "really didn't bother anybody" is definitely going too far. The monopoly system that AT&T is remembered for was born, somewhat ironically, out of antitrust lawsuits, and there was a continuous stream of suits and legislation to keep it in check up until deregulation. Had it not been for World War II and the Korean War, I actually suspect rather strongly that we would have seen deregulation happen much earlier than it did. The phone company was not well-loved by the public, and several administrations (Truman's especially, then later Eisenhower's) made a point of using it as a populist punching bag. Towards the end of its life during the Cold War, it was arguably a model less of a 'regulated monopoly' but of regulatory capture and corporatocracy.

In general, I think the history of AT&T suggests that regulated monopolies are good for broadening service out into otherwise unprofitable markets, and encouraging long-term investment into infrastructure that wouldn't be profitable enough (either because the payoff is too slow or the benefits are difficult to monetize for the infrastructure owner) in a competitive market to get funded. But like virtually all organizations, their first priority was self-preservation, and they lagged at reducing costs or at innovating in ways that would result in severe disruptions to their business model.*

The one major mistake made during deregulation, IMO, was not keeping Bell Labs alive as a quasi-independent agency funded by fees on telecommunication services (since that was, effectively, how it had always operated; it existed because of the monopoly position of AT&T/Bell and their ability to impose rates on consumers without worrying about being undercut). But the rest of the Kingsbury Commitment system, at least as it pertained to voice communications, could have been axed once universal coverage was achieved.

* AT&T's vision of the future was exemplified by the Picturephone: sophisticated, but almost certainly still billed by the minute. What the public really wanted, and what AT&T as an organization could never deliver, was dirt-cheap voice and an elimination of "long distance". The deregulated market delivered where AT&T never could, by its very nature.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:44 AM on October 27, 2010

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