AT&T: no news is good news

As reckoned by just about everyone familiar with the ways of federal deregulation, the proposed US Justice Department breakup of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) promises to keep a substantial army of attorneys, congressmen, and communications experts engaged in litigation and debate for many a month. That is not altogether unreasonable, given the profound changes that will occur in US phone and communications services growing out of the historic antitrust settlement announced last January.

Last week a House subcommittee unanimously approved legislation that would make substantial changes in the government's settlement. One change seems to warrant particular attention. That is a provision sought by newspaper publishers and some communications experts which would bar AT&T from setting up its own information service and making it available to customers over its phone lines. The current Justice Department settlement has no such prohibition.

Consider the implications. In effect AT&T, which would operate the dominant electronic ''delivery system'' in the computerized communications age of the future, could also quickly become the dominant source of news, information, and advertising as well. Granted, the communications media have a vested financial stake in opposing such an eventuality. But there is more than self-interest here. There is also the public interest.

Many broadcast specialists believe that not too far down the road communications systems will focus around receiving sets found in the home -- probably looking much like a standard television set, although having a keyboard system for two-way information retrieval. Into this system will come news, information, and so one. Would it really be in the public interest to allow the carrier of such information - AT&T - to become at the same time the main providerm of the information? Would it not be better to ensure diversity within the communications field, so that many competing media are guaranteed access -- at reasonable and competitive prices -- to that delivery system? That would require prohibiting (or carefully regulating) AT&T's role as both a carrier and provider, which is what the House telecommunications subcommittee has done in the legislation approved last week.

The action is foresighted.

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