THE BIGGEST COMPANY ON EARTH: A Profile of AT&T by Sonny Kleinfield


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In many respects, AT&T defies description. Nonetheless, Kleinfield's anecdotal odyssey, based on a series of New York Times articles, provides a remarkably accurate and consistently interesting picture of how the Bell System actually works without scanting any of its awesome dimensions. To illustrate, the empire encompasses 23 wholly or partially owned phone companies that furnish 85 percent of domestic telecommunication services. Included as well are Bell Telephone Labs (the R&D organization responsible for the transistor, laser, voice synthesizer, etc.) and Western Electric (a captive manufacturer which in 1979 earned $636 million on revenues of $11 billion). Further, AT&T's assets top $114 billion (greater than the GNP of all but 20 countries, Kleinfield notes), and its annual profits total almost $6 billion (better than $11,000 a minute, he calculates). Beyond these numerical superlatives are scads of individual and institutional stories. Among others, Kleinfield presents behind-the-scenes looks at: how long-distance calls are routed; how the capital-hungry Bell System raises the $4 billion needed every four months just to stay even with service demands; how operating companies approach local public service commissions for rate increases; how lobbyists deal with regulatory authorities and legislators intent on eroding its telecommunications monopoly; and how personnel officials handle the EEOC and others anxious to reform AT&T's allegedly discriminatory employment practices. With telecommunications technology rapidly melding with that of data processing and transmission, Kleinfield points out, Bell must now acclimate staffers to the rigors of external competition (from IBM, ITT, Xerox, et al.). He also cites more prosaic problems: gadflies who seek to disrupt annual meetings, varmints that feast on field equipment, obscene phone calls, and blue-box users or other toll evaders. A number of phone people are profiled too--lesser lights (including Atlanta's Jane Barbe, the voice of time, weather, and other pre-recorded messages) along with executives. The text is neither an exposÉ like Joseph Goulden's 1968 Monopoly (although wiretapping and a brace of regulatory scandals are covered in detail) nor a history like John Brooks' centennial appreciation, Telephone (1976). What Kleinfield offers is frequently thoughtful and thoroughly engrossing reportage.

Pub Date: Feb. 23rd, 1981
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston