This Baby Bell Wants to Get Out of Diapers

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Baby wants to grow up. Bell Atlantic, the northeastern offspring of the 1984 breakup of AT&T, has formally applied to the FCC for permission to take on its old Ma and offer long-distance service to its New York customers. The rationale dates back to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which promised the Baby Bells their shot at one-stop telecom shopping — local, Internet and long-distance service all on one bill from one company — once long-distance carriers like AT&T had had their shot at breaking the Baby Bells' hold on local markets. Bell Atlantic claims that day has arrived (pointing out, for instance, that both MCI and AT&T have considerable numbers of local customers in New York); TIME business writer Karl Taro Greenfeld isnít so sure.

"Theyíre early," he says. "AT&T does have the cable networks to offer local phone service over those lines, but itís a few years away from actually happening. And the lines the Bells have opened up to competition still carry such fees that a long-distance company that uses them canít offer competitive rates, leaving Bell Atlanticís home base of New York, for all practical purposes, a one-company market." Reality, however, doesnít have lobbyists; Bell Atlanticís have for years been bending over backward to convince New York regulators (on whose go-ahead the FCCís approval depends) that theyíre ready, willing and legally able to wade into the long-distance fray. On their side is increasing political pressure from Congress for the 1996 act to start getting results; against them are the AT&Ts and the MCIs and the Sprints, who are having enough trouble with each other without having to worry about a new kid with local clout. Better plan for the worst, fellas; where Bell Atlantic goes — and the chances look pretty good — there are four more Baby Bells just aching to follow.