Once upon a time, there was a phone company—or rather, the phone company. AT&T Corp., the venerable “Ma Bell,” provided nearly all telephone service to nearly all Americans for decades… until it didn’t. The company infamously broke up on New Year’s Day in 1984, splitting into the seven “Baby Bells,” regional carriers that could compete with other long-distance providers for consumer dollars.
The split wasn’t just for funsies. The baby Bells were the ultimate result of a settlement between AT&T and the Justice Department, the culmination of an antitrust case that began nearly a decade earlier. It was the first time the feds broke up a communications company for antitrust reasons—and 35 years later, it retains the dubious distinction of being the last.
The decades of deregulation since the Reagan administration have brought us to a whole new era of massive corporate consolidation and the rise of a new wave of conglomerates in sectors that didn’t even exist 40 years ago. The growth at the top in tech has been particularly stratospheric: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and a handful of others that have risen since the turn of the century now dominate our economy and our communications in a powerful way.