Gray Flannel Dwarf

8/14/2006

Talkin’ Ma Bell Merger Monopoly Blues

We all know that years ago, when Ma Bell was all big and powerful, she was chopped up by the authorities in the name of offering better service and choice to the American consumer. Over the last 5 years, however, we’ve seen mergers roll across the industry, especially in the new mobile phone market. Although initially and occasionally there have been small echoes of cynicism and flares ups of “renewed monopoly” talks, these have generally been hushed or ignored. “This will bring more choice to Americans!”, supporters and corporate noise boxes say.

Well, let’s take a look at some things I’ve noticed…

* In 2000, I had a Nextel phone. I have family in Canada, go there on occasion, and back then, I could take my Nextel phone on my trips to Canada, whereupon I could use my phone locally there. In other words, I could call any number in Canada locally, receive calls from Canadian numbers, and generally use my phone w/o roaming there. I still got charged if I wanted to call the US, but hey — this was nice.
* Later on, in about 2002, I switched over to AT&T Wireless. They had a plan which allowed me to pay an extra $20/mo to have unlimited calling to, and roaming in, Canada. Progress! Later on, when I switched from their TDMA network to their GSM network, it cost me even less — $9/mo! Terrific!!

But then…

* 2004: Cingular completes its acquisition of AT&T Wireless.

* 2005: Not to be outdone, Sprint swallows up Nextel.

Now, I switched over to AT&T Wireless’ GSM plan in late 2004, in part because I wanted to guarantee locked-in availability of their North American Package, because I didn’t quite trust the plentiful assurances by sales reps in Northern Virginia that something similar would exist from the new company.

Sure enough… as the months passed, the North America package remained — but only for former AT&T Wireless customers… and now it’s gone for good, at least for anyone who wants to get it now.

Well, I’m grandfathered in, I still have the package, but herein exists the quandary — and the large realisation of what the reduction of competition has done. After moving to NC, and having a mere three months left on our existing plan, we have been looking at trying to get new NC telephone numbers. To do this requires a change to our plan, and my initial suspicions were confirmed: My plan has been “frozen”, i.e., if I want to make any changes, I need to be moved over to a fully-Cingular plan. Good-bye, N.A. package

Sure enough, no other companies offer something similar. My only option from Cingular? Pay an extra $3/mo or whatever to have “reduced price international calling” from Canada and gee.. It’ll only cost me 59 cents/minute to call there. Of course, roaming is a completely different story…
So looking around, I remember what Nextel was able to do for me back in 2000. Even if I couldn’t get toll-free calling to Canada, I could still use my phone while there, so this would at least be a marginally more useful option, all things equal — and they were, for the most part, minutes and costs between all the plans were basically the same.

There’s only one thing… Sprint’s Nextel no longer offers this service, either. Nextel roaming in Canada is now 20 cents/minute.

The old mantra about Microsoft was “Embrace, extend, extinguish”. Glad to see that the mergers of today’s telecommunications companies are allowing them to be that much more efficient and bypass that middle step. Hell, Sprint and Nextel systems still can’t interface with each other on one network — although once again today, I got assurances from their sales reps that it was on the way… sometime next year.

We’ve got an ever more globalised world, “globalisation” seems to be on the lips of everyone, and the most ardent capitalists seem to think that it’ll be better for everyone the world over. So why are we going backwards in North American telephony? For that matter, what’s going to happen when AT&T completes its digestion of Bellsouth? One can only guess… and while others might have had problems with BellSouth, I’ve never had issue one with my POTS or DSL. I can only expect that things will once again get worse.

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