Having served as a consumer adviser for three United States presidents, I watched with a critical eye as Judge Harold Greene dismantled Ma Bell 11 years ago. Today, we are witnessing an about-face in telecommunications - the coupling of separate regional telephone companies. From Bell Atlantic and NYNEX to SBC Communications and Pacific Telesis, from Worldcom and MFS to MCI and British Telcom, telecommunications companies are merging all over the map.
As vice chair of the United Seniors Health Cooperative and a consumer in the Bell Atlantic region, I was intrigued by this reversal in course and decided to take a closer look. While consumer activists are often skeptical of corporate consolidation, I believe these mergers will actually produce more choice for consumers, more competition, and better quality services for everyone.
I believe mergers are increasing the number of strong telecommunications companies in each service and geographical market. Using Bell Atlantic and NYNEX as an example, the merger will create a larger and more efficient competitor in long distance, Internet, and cable services. It will also offer needed competition to many of America's cable monopolies, providing an important check to ensure competitive pricing.
Consumers will be able to benefit from products and services that are packaged together and specifically tailored to meet their needs. There are growing numbers of households today using paging and cellular, Internet access, and other telecommunications services. Consumers will have the freedom and opportunity to shop for the right packages to meet their needs.
Combined innovations of the consolidated companies also will benefit consumers. For example, through Bell Atlantic I have a new service called "Easy-Voice." I am able to automatically dial a phone number with a simple voice command - a breakthrough I would not have thought possible in my lifetime. A great service for anyone, "Easy-Voice" has extraordinary benefits for seniors like myself. There is no need to remember phone numbers of family and friends. In case of emergency, help really is just a word - "police" or "doctor" - away.
PERHAPS no other segment of society has benefited from the communications revolution as much as the disabled. Voice recognition, high-speed digital phone lines, and talking caller identification all help people with disabilities improve their productivity and quality of life. As is the case with my "Easy-Voice," these products and others require significant investment, and the merger of two companies like Bell Atlantic and NYNEX will enable the new company to provide more of these services, at an affordable price, for all customers who need them.
Just as the merger will bring forth the best in innovation from the two companies, it will also improve the practices of the new company. Bell Atlantic, for example, recently implemented NYNEX's "Universal Design Principles," which will ensure that new products are accessible to all customers, including those with disabilities.
New competition will encourage all companies to deploy the best practices and improve service overall. In the future, we will all have the choice of switching companies for long-distance, local, or Internet service. Already, 20 percent of American consumers switch their long-distance companies each year.
Last year's federal Telecommunications Act revolutionized the way in which we will receive communications services. The subsequent increased competition of the marketplace will put consumers in the driver's seat. The end result of the Bell Atlantic/NYNEX merger, and the consolidation of other companies like them, is that consumers will be offered more services, with better quality, at more competitive prices.
*Esther Peterson, who served as consumer adviser to three US presidents, is vice chair of the United Seniors Health Cooperative in Washington.