WASHINGTON - Verizon Communications' announcement Monday that it intends to acquire MCI for $6.7 billion, the third multibillion-dollar telecommunications merger announced since mid-December, effectively ends a two-decade experiment in which the U.S. government attempted to break up a huge telecom monopoly.
The Verizon/MCI deal, coupled with the Jan. 31 announcement that SBC Communications plans to acquire AT&T in a deal worth $16 billion, means two of the three largest long-distance carriers will be swallowed up by SBC and Verizon. SBC and Verizon are two of the four surviving regional Bells that traditionally focused on local telephone services after the court-ordered breakup of the old AT&T in 1984.
In many ways, the mergers, if approved by state and federal regulators, would end an evolution where phone companies traditionally offering local service and carriers traditionally offering long-distance had already begun to look a lot like each other.
Verizon and SBC, in the last five years, have started offering long-distance products to customers, and AT&T and MCI have attempted to compete with local telephone packages. The two recent mergers point to a future where giant telecom carriers offer a wide range of services to a wide range of customers -- from phone, television and Internet service for individual customers to huge long-distance and data networks deployed at the world's largest enterprise businesses.
"The competitors are getting larger and offering everything: telephone, cable TV, wireless, Internet," said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst, responding by e-mail. "There is still lots more action to go. Cable television companies and baby Bells are going to start to compete with the same bundles. We will stop calling them phone companies and cable companies and start to call them all communications companies."
Add the SBC and Verizon deals to the December announcement that long-time long-distance carrier Sprint plans to merge its wireless operations with Nextel Communications and spin off its local phone business, and the result will be fewer telecom options for the largest enterprise businesses.
Kagan cheered the move toward fewer telecom giants offering a wide range of services, saying it's good for the long-term health of the telecom industry, and two or three huge companies should provide enough competition to keep prices reasonable.
"It's been 20 years since the phone company was broken up, and now it's coming back together again, except there are multiple providers and it's a much bigger industry," he said. "Telecom has gone through amazing change in the last 20 years and it's becoming a much healthier place after the next several years of consolidation and change. I'd say the historic shift in telecom is under way, and now that it has started, it's happening quickly."
Other analysts disagreed. With two giant telecom carriers, the largest companies can expect higher prices for telecom products and services, said Ken McGee, group vice president and research fellow at Gartner Inc. While both SBC and Verizon expect to eventually save billions of dollars in their acquisitions, partly through laying off thousands of workers, large companies will have fewer options for price shopping, he said.