The analogy has been made that deregulation of the telephone industry was sort of like dismantling a 747 and reassembling it as several smaller planes - all while it was still in flight.
It has been five years since the divestiture order that broke up Ma Bell into various Baby Bells around the country. How does it all look now? Has the consumer come out ahead?"If politicians knew then what they know now, they'd probably have done everything they could to prevent divestiture," says John Burton, professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah.
There's no question that it has been a confusing time. But there is also no possibility that the telephone industry will return to what it was.
"It has been a mixed bag," says Burton. Some consumers have benefited, some have not.
The consumers who will make out best, he says, are those who have the time, energy and knowledge to sit down and make informed decisions. Those who use interstate long distance extensively will also benefit. There is also a greater array of equipment, providing greater choice.
Consumers who have had the hardest time, he says, are those who want life simple, who never checked on their options - what he calls victims of inertia, letting someone else make their decisions.
"The hardest thing," says Carol Dunlap, public relations manager for U.S. West Communications (formerly Mountain Bell), "has been educating people about who now does what. For 75 years, they had one-stop shopping." Now equpiment, repairs and services are all handled by different companies.
"I think the majority now understands the changes. But that doesn't alleviate the frustrations they sometimes have," she says.
When divestiture was announced, predictions were that long-distance service would come down in price and local service would go up; that has largely come true. Although, says Dunlap, rates have leveled off in the last two years.
The philosophical base has gone from cross-subsidization to cost-base pricing, says Burton. And the ones who generate more costs - those in rural areas, those who talk on the phone a lot - will end up paying more.
And the future?
It was technological advances that made competition and divestiture possible in the first place, he says. More technological advances could bring more competition in residential service.