….Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone on March 7, 1876, but initially it was considered no more than a passing novelty. In fact, Western Union passed up the opportunity to purchase the Bell patents for $100,000. But when those patents held by American Telephone and Telegraph Company expired in 1894, competition entered the market and the availability of telephone service and the number of telephones exploded. The telephone moved from novelty to necessity. According to Adam Thierer of the Cato Institute, there were, at the time, more than 3,000 telephone companies vying for customers. Author G. W. Brock, in his book The Telecommunications Industry, pointed out the difference competition made:
After seventeen years of monopoly [thanks to the patents held by AT&T from 1877 – 1894], the United States had a limited telephone system of 270,000 phones [mostly concentrated] in the centers of the cities, with service generally unavailable in the outlying areas. After thirteen years of competition , the United States had an extensive system of six million telephones, almost evenly divided between Bell and [its competitors], with service available practically anywhere in the country. [Emphasis added.]
Writing in The New Telecommunications Industry, authors Leonard Hyman, Richard Toole, and Rosemary Avellis concluded that “competition helped to expand the market, bring down costs, and lower prices to consumers.” Because of the negative impact upon AT&T by its competitors, the president of AT&T, Theodore Newton Vail, changed the focus of the company from competition to consolidation. As noted by Thierer, “Vail’s most important goals upon taking over AT&T were the elimination of competitors, the befriending of policymakers and regulators, and the expansion of telephone service to the general public.” Vail’s belief in the superiority of a single monopolistic system was reflected in the company’s new corporate slogan, “One Policy, One System, Universal Service.” In the company’s 1910 annual report, Vail wrote:
- It is believed that the telephone system should be universal, interdependent and intercommunicating, affording opportunity for any subscriber of any exchange to communicate with any other subscriber of any other exchange…. It is believed that some sort of a connection with the telephone system should be within reach of all….
- It is not believed that this can be accomplished by separately controlled or distinct systems nor that there can be competition in the accepted sense of competition…. [Emphasis added.]
- It is believed that all this can be accomplished to the reasonable satisfaction of the public with its acquiescence, under such control and regulation as will afford the public much better service at less cost than any competition or government-owned monopoly could permanently afford…. [Emphasis added.]
- Effective, aggressive competition and regulation and control are inconsistent with each other, and cannot be had at the same time.
Author R.H.K. Vietor, writing in Contrived Competition, said, “Vail chose at this time to put AT&T squarely behind government regulation, as the quid pro quo for avoiding competition. This was the only politically acceptable way for AT&T to monopolize telephony.” In fact, without government regulations eliminating the competition, the reinstitution of the AT&T monopoly would have been impossible. The Kingsbury Commitment (named for one of Vail’s employees) was an agreement with the Attorney General and the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1913 that essentially codified the playing field which allowed AT&T to regain monopoly control of the industry.
In 1934, the power to regulate the telephone industry under the ICC was transferred to the new Federal Communications Commission. Enacted by the Roosevelt Revolution during the Great Depression, the Communications Act of 1934 created the FCC “for the purpose of regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.” In other words, according to Thierer, “every American was henceforth found to be entitled to the right to telephone service, specifically cheap telephone service.” The FCC’s powers included the power to regulate rates and restrict entry by competitors, all in the name of preventing “wasteful duplication” and “unneeded competition.”…..