AT&T (NYSE: T) is the world's largest telecommunications company by revenue, offering landline and wireless voice, broadband, and video services to tens of millions of customers. Based in Dallas, Texas, the company has been led by Chairman and CEO Randall L. Stephenson since 2007. AT&T ranked 29th in the 2008 Fortune Global 500, with nearly $119 billion in revenue and nearly $12 billion in profits.
The history of AT&T is a lot like the plot of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, really. It begins with a lot of hooting and scrambling and chaos. Then an all-powerful monolith appears. A giant, sophisticated machine is built, gets a little too big for its britches, and is disassembled against its will. And finally, things get really, really confusing. (Thankfully, the history of AT&T does not at any point involve a giant space baby.)
The company that would eventually become AT&T was formed in 1877 as the Bell Telephone Company, by a team including the telephone's inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. Bell Telephone wasted no time gobbling up rivals and expanding its reach; by 1899, the company had been devoured (for complicated tax and growth purposes) by a former subsidiary, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. By 1913, AT&T was a legally blessed, bona fide monopoly, completely controlling both telephone service and the manufacture and sale of phones themselves throughout most of the United States.
In the decades that followed, "Ma Bell," as the company became known, enjoyed an iron grip on the nation's phone service. But the first cracks in its seemingly impervious facade appeared in 1968, when the FCC first allowed phones not made by AT&T to connect to and work with the Bell telephone network. Shortly thereafter, rivals began selling long-distance service to AT&T customers, first for business, and later for residential use.
In 1974, the Department of Justice filed an antitrust suit against AT&T, and after eight long years of litigation, Ma Bell relinquished her grip on the nation's telephone service in 1982. Though AT&T survived as a long-distance service provider, in competition with MCI and Sprint, it split its local service into seven regional and independent "Baby Bells," and its phone-selling business quickly withered and died when faced with market competition.
The company limped through the 1980s and into the 1990s, buoyed by its famous logo and brand, but still a shadow of its former self. In 1994, it got into the wireless game by purchasing leading cellphone provider McCaw Communications. In 1997, the company embarked on an ambitious and expensive plan to broaden the scope of its services and enter the cable TV market. Unable to pay for all these new acquisitions, the company shortly began to spin them all off, divesting itself of its wireless, broadband, and cable TV arms, all of which were quickly snapped up by ambitious rivals including Cingular and Comcast. At last, in November 2005, former Baby Bell SBC Communications put the suffering giant out of its misery by purchasing and merging with AT&T.
With a famous name and a snazzy update to the classic AT&T globe for its logo, the re-energized company wasted no time getting even bigger, gobbling up BellSouth in 2006. The deal brought its former wireless operations -- only recently rebranded, with much fanfare, under the Cingular banner -- back under the AT&T name. AT&T Wireless has recently enjoyed considerable success, if a surprisingly small share of the total revenue, as the exclusive seller of Apple's smash hit iPhone.
In 2007, the company began efforts to compensate for dwindling revenue from landline telephone service by pushing into broadband internet and U-Verse television services through a new fiber-optic network. With much of its future now resting on the transmission of tiny pulses of light through glass filaments, one can technically argue that, my God, AT&T is indeed full of stars.
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