by Ross Wehner, The Denver Post
DENVER -- AT&T's shareholders -- at what will probably be their last
meeting -- are expected to approve a $16 billion merger with SBC
Communications in Denver on Thursday, forming the largest
telecommunications company in the nation.
The deal, together with the upcoming Verizon-MCI merger,
represents an unprecedented consolidation of the telecom industry.
Both deals are expected to gain regulatory approval in the next six
months to a year.
Denver-based Qwest dropped out of a bidding war for MCI last month
after the MCI board rebuffed it four times in favor of lower bids from
"Qwest faces added pressure after losing MCI," said Standard & Poor's
analyst Todd Rosenbluth. "Qwest is on the outside looking in at a
soon-to-be-consolidated telecom market."
Here's what the new telecom landscape will look like:
SBC and Verizon will be able to compete in Qwest's territory for
business customers by offering the two most far-reaching national
They could poach Qwest's residential customers by bundling wireless
and long distance. They could offer Internet phone service over
Qwest's DSL lines at the same time as cable companies like Comcast
also are munching on Qwest's broadband customers.
SBC and Verizon already own the two largest wireless operations in the
United States and control nearly two-thirds of local phone lines
nationwide. The mergers will further boost their financial mass,
customer base and technological firepower in relation to Qwest.
Each of the new companies will have market values more than a dozen
times greater than Qwest, which is burdened with $17.3 billion in
debt. SBC in particular will benefit by integrating AT&T's CallVantage
Internet phone service and reviving AT&T's remaining 23 million
residential long-distance clients, said Rosenbluth.
"SBC and Verizon, with these mergers, are becoming worldwide telecom
players," said Janco Partners analyst Donna Jaegers. "Qwest is stuck
in the rural local phone league."
Qwest CEO Richard Notebaert has been one of the most vocal critics of
the SBC and Verizon mergers. At the same time, he is shopping for
other assets that may help Qwest become what he calls the "third leg
of the stool" in the increasingly consolidated industry.
One of Notebaert's main arguments before regulators is the hotly
contested idea that the SBC-AT&T and Verizon-MCI mergers are
restitching the 1984 breakup of the AT&T monopoly. In the process,
Notebaert claims, businesses will see fewer choices and higher prices.
"When five of the seven companies that resulted from the breakup of
the AT&T monopoly are reconfigured into two companies that will
control the business wire-line market, that's a duopoly," wrote
Notebaert in a letter last month to the Wall Street Journal.
SBC and AT&T disagree.
"The competitive landscape has changed radically since the breakup of
the Ma Bell system," said SBC spokesman Joe Izbrand. "The argument
just doesn't wash."
"The current industry restructuring is a far cry from putting back
together the Ma Bell system," said AT&T spokesman Andy Backover.
Both Izbrand and Backover point to an increasingly fragmented and
technology-driven marketplace that includes cable companies that offer
phone service, cell phone companies that allow consumers to ditch
their land lines and a growing bevy of Internet phone companies that
compete across the nation.
Phil Weiser, an associate professor of law and telecommunications at
the University of Colorado, sees both sides of the argument.
"On the consumer side, wireless, cable and other broadband providers
offer competitive alternatives," Weiser said. "But the consolidation
of networks in the business market is a huge concern."
A recent study sponsored by Qwest found that SBC and Verizon will
control access to more than nine out of 10 office buildings in Chicago
and Los Angeles, two cities that lie within SBC and Verizon territory.
Notebaert has predicted that the SBC and Verizon mergers will be
approved. His strategy is to convince regulators that the telecom
titans need to divest overlapping network assets, which Qwest could
then buy to beef up its own money-losing national fiber-optic network.
"With MCI, Notebaert failed to win the whole business," said
Rosenbluth. "Now he is looking at picking up the pieces. But is it
going to be sufficient to improve Qwest's operations?"
AT&T, the 120-year-old phone company that monopolized U.S. phone
service for years as the largest company on the planet, held past meetings
in Denver in 1972 and 1988.
But this Thursday's event -- in Qwest's back yard -- came about by
chance. The company could not fix a meeting date until merger
documents were approved last month by the Securities and Exchange
Commission. The Colorado Convention Center was one of the few
facilities that was still available.
"This meeting is a very sad and ironic demise of what was once
America's greatest corporation," said Weiser. "It has been a demise
that has been 50 years in the making that has resulted from
deregulation, technological change and management mistakes."
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Newspaper Group
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