Is Telephony a Natural Monopoly?

For my entire career, I’ve heard it said that telecommunications is a natural monopoly. That was the justification for creating monopoly exchange boundaries for telcos and for issuing exclusive franchise agreements for cable companies. This historic reasoning is why the majority of Americans in urban areas are still stuck with duopoly competition that is trending towards a cable monopoly.

I worked for Southwestern Bell pre-divestiture and they were proud of their monopoly. Folks at Ma Bell thought the telephone monopoly was the best possible deal for the public and they constantly bragged about the low rates for a residential telephone line, usually at something less than $15 per month. But when you looked closer, the monopoly was not benefitting the average household. Long distance was selling for 12 cents to 25 cents per minute and a major percentage of households had monthly phone bills over $100 per month.

I’ve been doing some reading on the history of the telephone industry and found some history I never knew about – and which is different than what Ma Bell told employees for 100 years.

Alexander Graham Bell was granted many patents for telephone service in 1876. During the 18-year life of the original patents, Bell telephone held a monopoly on telephone service. Bell Telephone mostly built to large businesses and to rich neighborhoods and the country still predominantly communicated via telegraph. Bell Telephone was not considered much of a success. By 1894 there was still less than 5 telephones in the country per 1,000 population, and there were only 37 average calls per day per 1,000 people.

As soon as the patents expired, numerous competitors entered the market. They built to towns that Bell Telephone had ignored but also built a competing network in many Bell Telephone markets. By the end of 1896, 80 competitors that had grabbed 5% of the total telephone market. By 1900 there were 3,000 competitive telephone companies.

By 1907 the competitors had grabbed 51% of the national market and had also driven down urban telephone rates. AT&T’s returns (AT&T had officially become the name of Bell Telephone) had dropped from 46% annually in the late 1800s to 8% by 1906. After 17 years of monopoly, the country had only 270,000 telephones. After 13 years of competition there were over 6 million phones in the country.

The death of telephone competition started when Theodore Vail became president of AT&T in 1907. By 1910 the company was buying competitors and lobbying for a monopoly scenario. Federal regulators stepped in to slow Bell’s the purchase of telephone companies after Vail tried to buy Western Union.

In a compromise reached with the federal government, AT&T agreed to stop buying telcos and to interconnect with independent telephone companies to create one nationwide network. That compromise was known as the Kingsbury Commitment. Vail used this compromise to carve out monopoly service areas by only agreeing to interconnect with companies that would create exchange boundaries and further agree not to compete in AT&T exchanges. With almost the opposite result that federal regulators had hoped for, the Kingsbury Commitment resulted in a country carved into AT&T monopoly telephone service areas.

From that time forward federal regulators supported the new monopoly borders, cementing the arrangement with the Telecommunications Act of 1934. State regulators liked the monopolies because they were easier to regulate – state regulation turned into rate-making procedures that raised rates on businesses to keep lower residential rates. AT&T thrived in this environment because they were guaranteed a rate of return, regardless of performance.

The history of telephone service shows that the industry is not a natural monopoly. A natural monopoly is one where one provider can produce lower rates than are achieved by allowing competition. Competing networks forced lower telephone rates at the turn of the last century. After the establishment of the AT&T monopoly we saw monopoly abuse through high long distance rates that didn’t drop until MCI challenged the monopoly status quo. Today we have a world full of multiple wires and networks and the idea of natural monopoly is no longer considered as valid. Unfortunately, many of the vestiges of the regulations that protect the big telcos are still in place and still create hurdles to unfettered competition.