Friday, January 6, 2017

A story for Epiphany (from the archives: January 6, 2010)

The Three Magi: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, from a late 6th century mosaic at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Once upon a time there was the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, AT&T, or Ma Bell to you, and within Ma Bell there could be found Bell Labs (her research and development arm), Western Electric Co. (her manufacturing arm), and lots of little Bell Operating Companies (BOCs) (her legs for getting telephones to and collecting lots of money from the general public), 24 to be exact, including two that were wholly owned subsidiaries:

1. New England Telephone
2. Southern New England Telephone (wholly-owned subsidiary #1)
3. New York Telephone
4. New Jersey Bell
5. Bell of Pennsylvania
6. Diamond State Telephone (Delaware to you)
7. Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone of Maryland
8. Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone of West Virginia
9. Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone of Virginia
10. Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone of Washington, D.C.
11. Southern Bell
12. South Central Bell
13. Ohio Bell
14. Cincinnati Bell (wholly-owned subsidiary #2)
15. Indiana Bell
16. Michigan Bell
17. Illinois Bell
18. Wisconsin Bell
19. Northwestern Bell
20. Southwestern Bell
21. Mountain Bell
22. Nevada Bell
23. Pacific Bell
24. Pacific Northwest Bell

There were lots of other telephone companies too, like giant General Telephone and itty-bitty Blue Ridge Telephone Company and others scattered all over the country, but they were independent and had nothing to do with Ma Bell, AT&T, or the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.

But the big, bad Federal Government said to AT&T, “No, no, no, you are a monopoly and you must divest yourselves of all of those operating companies on January 1, 1984.” So AT&T, Ma Bell to you, looked into her open grave and said, “Children, it is time to stand on your own two, er, 48 feet, sort of.” And even though Ma Bell kept her research and development arm (Bell Labs) and her manufacturing arm (Western Electric Co., though its name had been changed to AT&T Technologies), she gave away her 24 children to seven umbrella companies called Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs), and Ma Bell was no more. Some of the RBOCs thrived and their stock soared and some of the RBOCs slowly went down the tubes. The seven RBOCs were:

1. NYNEX (NY for New York and NE for New England and X for eXchanges)
2. Bell Atlantic
3. BellSouth
4. Ameritech
5. SBC Communications (S for Southwestern and B for Bell)
6. U.S. West
7. Pacific Telesis

One of the RBOCs, Southwestern Bell, retained its old identity through the transition and continued performing one of its primary functions, producing and distributing the yellow pages.

Years went by. AT&T opened PhoneCenter stores all over the country, and then decided to close them. Cellphones were invented. In 1995, Bell Labs and Western Electric (though its name had been changed again, first to AT&T Information Systems and then to AT&T Network Systems) were spun off into a new company, Lucent Technologies, and began interacting with such entities as AT&T-BCS (Business Communications Systems) and AT&T-GBS (General Business Systems) and AT&T-LBS (Large Business Systems) and AT&T-GBCS (whatever). More name changes occurred and rival companies called MCI and Verizon and Sprint and Vonage and Skype and magicJack sprang up and flourished, or not, with ever cheaper and ever more lightweight plastic throwaway phones. Southwestern Bell began a joint venture with BellSouth called Cingular to market cellphones, eventually BellSouth was swallowed up by Southwestern Bell, and the name Cingular eventually changed to AT&T Mobility. AT&T opened up retail stores again but didn’t call them PhoneCenters. The more things changed, the more they seemed to remain the same.

The RBOCs merged and expanded and changed shape and AT&T decided to get out of the telephone manufacturing business altogether. Southwestern Bell bought AT&T, changing its own name to AT&T in the process, and moved the new AT&T’s headquarters from New Jersey, where it had been that state’s largest employer, to San Antonio, Texas, and then to Dallas, Texas, from whence it shall come to judge the quick and the dead. No, wait, that’s something else. Lucent Technologies, which had been Western Electric Co. long ago, and then AT&T Technologies, and then AT&T Information Systems, and then AT&T Network Systems, disappeared into was bought by a giant telecommunication company in France named Alcatel and moved its headquarters to Paris.

There is no end to this story; it will go on and on, and no one knows whether the new AT&T, which is for all intents and purposes really the old Southwestern Bell, will live happily ever after, but the moral of this story on this Epiphany is this:

Some men are so busy making money and inventing gadgets and being entrepreneurial and following their own stars that they no longer have time to seek Him, but wise men still do.

[Full disclosure: I went to work for Western Electric Co. on Feb. 25, 1980, and retired from Lucent Technologies on March 1, 2000. My monthly pension is currently paid by Alcatel-Lucent.]

Addendum, January 6, 2017: My monthly pension is no longer paid by Alcatel-Lucent, the American arm of Alcatel, a French global telecommunications equipment company, headquartered in Boulogne-Billancourt, France, because in late 2016, Alcatel was merged with, acquired by, subsumed into (pick one) Nokia, a Finnish multinational communications and information technology company founded in 1865 and headquartered in Espoo, Uusimaa, in the greater Helsinki metropolitan area. The monthly pension I receive is now paid by it/them/whomever. I also receive another monthly pension from International Business Machines (IBM), an American multinational technology company headquartered in Armonk, New York, United States, with operations in over 170 countries, but that is a topic for another post.

Addendum number 2: Don't hold your breath.


  1. AAAARRRGH! After reading that, my brain hurts. Your knowledge about the intricacies of the phone industry is phenomenal but is this the best way of filling the great Brague brain? Perhaps researching the fascinating life of Jackie Evancho would reap greater rewards. Did you know that when she was very small, Evancho saw the film version of the musical "The Phantom of the Opera" and liked it so much that her mother purchased the DVD? Evancho began singing the songs at home. Her parents have said that they did not recognize that her voice was unusual until her first talent competition, which she entered just before her 8th birthday. In the competition, Kean Idol,Evancho finished in second place.

  2. The great Brague brain is filled with whatever it is filled with, however it got there, and I make no apologies for it. I did not study or research anything for this post, I merely dredged up the information from the unfathomable depths of 20 years of breathing in daily the minutiae of the work environment that was Ma Bell. As for Jackie Evancho, she definitely was a phenomenon as a child, but Charlotte Church get there first, and before Charlotte Church there was Julie Andrews, who sang for their majesties George VI and Queen Mother Elizabeth when she was only 12 or 13 years old (Julie, I mean, not Queen Mother Elizabeth).

  3. What you describe is the great corporate pandemic that first sprang up in the 1980s - the management of change. Senior and middle managers became obsessed with the idea that things could only be improved through change even if things were working perfectly well. But they never found out whether the changes they inflicted actually worked because before anyone could assess their efficacy, another bunch of managers arrived and threw all the pieces in the air again. It's all rather sad really.

    One name I did recognise though was NYNEX even if I didn't know its origin. When cable tv arrived in our part of the world it was NYNEX that dug up the pavements and laid the cables.

  4. My head is spinning and I feel dizzy. Make it stop!

  5. I read this and found it interesting and thought I'd commented. Because of comment moderation I'm not sure now whether I did or not. Anyway it reminded me of being in California when many small communities had their own cellphone coverage which was not compatible with anywhere else. There were some tourists from NY at a place we stayed who were most peeved that they couldn't use their cellphones.

  6. My investigative skills have determined that the three gentlemen commenters are in the British Isles and the lady is somewhere in the refrigerator otherwise known as Nebraska in January. Thank you for dropping by.