Federal Internet Law & Policy
An Educational Project

AT&T 1922 - 1948 :: Era of Consolidation

Dont be a FOOL; The Law is Not DIY

Source: Robert Cannon
taken in Brunswick, MD

AT&T historically argued that telephone service was a natural monopoly and that competition was inefficient. As the competitive era of telephone service came to a close, AT&T was successful in its argument and was able to establish itself as a government sanctioned monopoly.

AT&T's status as a government sanctioned monopoly would eventually erode at the borders of the market where competition could be introduced. Carterphone and Hushaphone introduced competition in the Customer Premises Equipment market. The Computer Inquiries introducted competition in the enhanced services market. MCI introduced competition in the long distance market. The break-up of Ma Bell sought to but failed to introduce competition in the local network market. Mobile phone service introduced competition in the wireless telephone service market (although that competition appears to be eroding with soon to be only three providers left).

The passage of the Willis Graham Act 1921 marked the closure of the era of telephone competition, as independant telephone companies with financial difficulties sought to be acquired by AT&T. In time, telecommunications policy operated with the belief that the telephone network was a natural monopoly. Telecommunications policy determined that the proper way to regulate the telephone monopoly and determine appropriate rates was through rate-of-return regulation. The Willis Graham Act exempted telephone companies from antitrust laws, permitting consolidation of companies on approval of the ICC.

Willis-Graham Act, 61 Cong. Rec. 1988 (1921)

"There are monopolies which ought to exist in the interest of economy and good service in the public welfare, monopolies which must be promoted instead of being forbidden. The telephone business is one of these. Legitimate consolidation will promote economy. It will promote service. It is foolish to talk about competition in the transmission of intelligence by telephone. It is silly to believe that there can be real competition either in service or in charges… The thing that the American Congress ought to do is to.. regulate those monopolies so as to get reasonable prices and good service for the people…  "

Willis Graham Act superceded the Kingsbury Accord.

Prof. Milton Mueller rejects both the argument of natural monopoly and of the AT&T monopoly occurring as a result of predatory actions. Instead, Mueller argues that AT&T's monopoly was established pursuant to Vail's concept of "universal service," that the only way to overcome fragmented non interconnecting competing telephone services was to eliminate the competition and establish one company as the one universal, fully interconnected, network. Milton Mueller, "Universal service" and the new Telecommunications Act: Mythology Made Law 1997 ("This law exempted telephone companies from the antitrust laws in order to make it possible for them to "unify the service" by merging competing telephone exchanges. In so doing, it provided the legal foundation for the first generation universal service policy.")

AT&T finally realized its dream of becoming the official blessed monopoly by the 1930s. [Mueller 1997] [Fraser] (See AT&T for more on the history of AT&T that led it to becoming a government sanctioned monopoly) It has been argued that a different motive of AT&T for becoming a government sanctioned monopoly was to avoid Progressive Era pressures to nationalize the telecommunications network.

AT&T: Electrical Transmission of Speech (1920s)

AT&T: That Little Big Fellow (1927)






Pres. Herbert Hoover with First Telephone in Oval Office.

AT&T: Telephone Courtesy (1940s)

War and the Telephone 1943

Late 1940s Bell Mobile Telephone




Western Electric's sales $70 m; 6000 employees. [Porticus Western Union]

1934: Communications Act of 1934


First round the world telephone call. [Iardella 34]


First coaxial cable put into service between New York and Philadelphia. [Iardella 34] [AT&T: History of Network Transmission] "The first coaxial cable experiment opened between New York and Philadelphia in 1936. One pair of coaxial units simultaneously carried 1,860 telephone conversations or 600 conversations and two TV programs. Each of these 1,860 voice pathways were equipped to provide up to 18 telegraph circuits. Commercial service was inaugurated between Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1941. Coast-to-coast service was inaugurated in 1951 when the Japanese Peace Conference in San Francisco, California, was televised."

1937: Clinton Davisson of Bell Labs receives a Nobel Price. [Iardella 19]

1939: Telephone is deployed as "a weapon of preparedness." [Porticus Western Union] Western Electric manufactures Signal Corps sets in preparation for the war. [Iardella 34]

World War II: Western Electric builds US military's radar system [Brooks p 11] [Iardella 35] Between 1942 to 1945, West Electric sales to USG more than $2.3B. [Iardella 35]

During World War II, AT&T ran ads asking consumers to not make long distance phone calls in order to keep the load on the network - which could not be expanded during the war - down. [AT&T Ad Encouraging Consumers to Limit Long Distance Calls]


Western Electric sales to USG $3.5m. [Iardella 34]



The first African American, Gloria Shepperson, is hired in the Bell System helped by Fair Employment Practices Executive Order 8802 (1941) banning hiring discrimination. [CWA History]


AT&T leases 600,000 new phones in the first few months of peace. By years end, 27,946,000 phones in US; 22,446,000 are Bell telephones. [Iardella 36]


1947: Bell Labs


1949 :: Antitrust II

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