Late Thursday night, with an end-of-year deadline looming to get Federal Communications Commission approval of its takeover of BellSouth, AT&T agreed to significant conditions on the deal that will keep control of the public's Internet in the hands of the public, and out of AT&T's clutches - at least, temporarily.
Given that the US Justice Department abdicated the public interest and turned a blind eye to the glaring anti-competitive impacts of combining AT&T and BellSouth, two of the nation's largest phone companies, there was little chance this merger could be stopped entirely. So AT&T's cave in on Network Neutrality, its reluctant agreement to provide system-wide low cost stand-alone broadband access, its surrender of valuable spectrum to competitors, and other competition-preserving conditions - all in all, this is likely the best outcome the public could hope for.
Recall that it was AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre who ignited a grassroots brushfire to save the Internet from a hostile takeover by his company when he threatened: "How do you think they're (websites like Google) going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that... For a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!"
This is the second stinging defeat in two months for Whitacre and AT&T, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an unsuccessful Mike McCurry-led disinformation campaign to convince Congress to pass a bill full of Big Wet Kisses for the cable and telephone companies, including a thorough gutting of Net Neutrality.
McCurry's pitch was that We the People would be far better off if We just would agree to turn over control of Our Internet to Them - the few giant phone and cable companies that control a mere 98 percent of the market for cable and DSL broadband Internet access. Now, with AT&T's capitulation at the FCC, we can only hope for one last holiday treat; that McCurry's egregiously misnamed "Hands Off Our Internet" campaign will be jettisoned entirely, sparing us all its bizarre doublespeak TV commercials.
Kudos to FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein for their strong stand against approving this merger without these critical conditions. With their hand strengthened considerably by the Democrats' takeover of Congress, these Commissioners successfully held out to the very end to achieve some measure of public interest in this transaction.
Along with Copps and Adelstein, another hero of this piece is FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell. Formerly a lawyer for small telephone companies, McDowell stayed true to his ethical commitment to Congress and the American people to not participate for one year in Commission deliberations that involved his former employer. Despite a hamhanded attempt by FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin to persuade McDowell to abandon that commitment, and vote with Martin to break the Commission's deadlock to approve the merger without these important conditions, McDowell declined. Kudos to him as well. By doing nothing, McDowell ended up doing everything to preserve some scrap of public interest in this merger.
Yet, the Net Neutrality and other conditions in this merger are not permanent, but expire after, in most instances, 30 months. Thus, the battle now shifts to Congress to make these conditions permanent, and preserve control of the Internet in the hands of the public, not the big telephone and cable monopolists.