In 1975, Colorado freshman congressman Tim Wirth got it into his head to seek a seat on the House Telecommunications Subcommittee. It wasn't considered a glamorous assignment, but the young Democrat had a keen interest in the cable-television industry, an emerging force spearheaded by Denver mavericks such as Bill Daniels and Bob Magness.
Wirth was also intrigued by the smothering monopoly known as the phone company. One day he received a call from his mother in Morrison, reporting that a telephone repairman had been to the house to fix a service problem. The repairman informed her that she'd placed an unauthorized "foreign device" on Mountain Bell's equipment that would have to be removed -- a hand-knitted cover on the phone book.
"That was a metaphor for what was going on," Wirth recalls. "They said that the system was the solution, that the approach they were taking was the right and only way to do things."
Wirth soon ascended to the chairmanship of the subcommittee and became a key player in the push to inject competition into the telecom industry, a role that often put him at odds with AT&T's fleet of lawyers and lobbyists. "There's only one rule in the communications industry," he says. "The 'ins' do everything they can to keep the 'outs' out. The broadcasters wanted to keep the cable guys out. AT&T acted like the whole industry was their province, and everybody should just stand up and salute. I thought we ought to have a competitive environment."
Years before the 1984 court-ordered breakup of the phone system, Wirth pushed for legislation that would have made it easier for upstart companies to take on Ma Bell. "We had a very structured plan to get AT&T to open itself up for competition," he says. "But they resisted any change fiercely. [The divestiture] was their own fault."
Consumers benefited mightily from the breakup, Wirth believes. Long-distance rates plummeted, new products and companies were born, and the stage was set for the convergence of computer, cable and phone technologies. "It was an unbelievably interesting time," he says. "There was this huge burst of technology and innovation, and the gates just opened."
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Wirth went on to serve one term in the U.S. Senate, where he helped defeat a revision to telecom policy that he viewed as anti-competitive. He's now the president of the Washington-based United Nations Foundation, a nonprofit underwritten by the largesse of cable news pioneer Ted Turner, and watches the telecom wars from the sidelines -- with a fair amount of disgust and alarm. He's sharply critical of the "ridiculous" Telecommunications Act of 1996, which made possible the current merger mania in the industry, and the increasing control of the business by a smaller number of companies.
"The cable people ought to be taking advantage of their technology," he says. "How rapidly are we going to see Comcast offering telephone service? The war is going to be between Verizon and Comcast, ultimately."
He faults the Federal Communications Commission with failing to put the public interest first in the way companies make use of the airwaves. "We have a cell-phone industry that's pretty tacky compared to cell-phone service in Europe," he says. "There ought to be a public-interest requirement. These guys are getting the use of the public spectrum for nothing. The FCC used to be a very independent regulatory body; now, like so much of government today, it's owned and operated by corporate America. Self-interest has totally eclipsed the public interest."