AT&T: No Escape

23:24 Tue 22 Mar 2011. Updated: 00:25 23 Mar 2011
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When I first got my landline in San Francisco, it was with PacBell. They got bought by SBC, who were bought by AT&T. When I first got a cellphone in 2006, my service was with Cingular. They got taken over by AT&T. I stuck with AT&T for a while, with plenty of gripes, before escaping to T-Mobile. I’ve been very happy with T-Mobile.

So, naturally, AT&T now intends to buy T-Mobile.

The dominant GSM cellphone network in the US is planning to buy out the only other major GSM cellphone network. Since I have a GSM phone, and want to use GSM so that my hardware is compatible with my Irish SIM, that leaves me little choice.

AT&T are worse on pricing; worse with data plans (and especially tethering); worse on locking down their phones; and worse on privacy. Wonderful.

There’s some chance that the FCC will block this deal, which I would love as a consumer (there’s some speculation that T-Mobile are in fact planning on it falling through, but the same evidence can be read as AT&T knowing that there’s no way it would fall through) but don’t expect. I absolutely think it would be healthier for the cellphone market in the US if there are more, not fewer, major players—but I’m looking at that from the perspective of the customers.

Competition is good for customers and bad for company profits. It can be inefficient in negative ways, also, but I think much of that can be tackled by standards and regulation. The problem, especially in huge industries where vast sums of money are involved, is that regulatory capture is quite likely to occur, so that the powerful players use regulations to win battles they would otherwise lose in the market. Unfortunately, leaving things to the market in such industries also tends to monopoly, and in both cases customers are adversely affected by unhealthy concentrations of power. There are answers, but they required a lot more political will, vigilance, and engagement, none of which are easy to generate, especially when fighting against vast sums of money.

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