By Steve Jagler Special to Published Dec 01, 2006 at 9:15 AM
On one hand, you could say that the American telecommunications industry has come full circle.

In the old days, you had THE phone company, AT&T, also known as Ma Bell. In 1984, Ma Bell was broken up into seven regional Baby Bells.

After a few years passed by, and the Reagan administration had neutered the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, the Baby Bells began to gobble each other up.

A year ago, one of the merged super Baby Bells, SBC Communications, acquired the mother company, AT&T, and even adopted her name.

And when the new AT&T finally gains federal approval in 2007 to acquire another Baby Bell, Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., the merged firm will span across a 22-state footprint and be the largest telecommunications company in the world.

The changes have been reflected in the signage on the west wall of the former Wisconsin Bell Co. building at 722 N. Broadway in Downtown Milwaukee. Over the past few decades, that sign was changed from Wisconsin Telephone Co., to Wisconsin Bell, to Ameritech, then to SBC and now back to AT&T.

However, this new Ma Bell is not your father's Ma Bell, in terms of its dominance or its corporate culture.

After the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the number of Wisconsin homes and businesses with AT&T lines dropped from 2 million to 1.4 million, largely because of the emergence of TDS Metrocom, which has used strong customer service to prosper in this market.

Today, AT&T is engaged in a fierce turf war with another type of competitor: Time Warner Cable. In essence, the telephone company wants to be a cable TV company, and the cable TV company wants to be a telephone company, although both might take issue with that particular verbiage.

Regardless, their both stomping on each other's toes, and they're not saying, "Excuse me."
Ultimately, the winner will likely be the company that most efficiently bundles traditional telephone service, high-speed Internet, television programming and cellular phone service into one plan

Meanwhile, the new Ma Bell is changing its corporate culture. Take a peak at its funky new customer Web sites, including

You'll find AT&T's new "Home Turf" program, in which former Dallas Cowboys star Deion Sanders tours the homes of famous athletes, one of whom is Green Bay Packers rookie linebacker A.J. Hawk. In the video, Sanders refers to Hawk as his "new homey."

I am not kidding you.

Now switch over to What's this? Alternative, underground music and videos? "Austin City Limits" highlights? Project D.U., a collection of blogs? From the phone company?

I can guarantee you that ol' Alexander Graham Bell never envisioned a corporate Web site feature John Mayer singing the blues. Or any Web site, for that matter.

AT&T even has a new, ubiquitous jingle that plays in all of its radio and television commercials. You know the song, the one that starts out with the lyrics "All around the world … blah, blah, blah." Most humans can't decipher that second line, but AT&T spokesman Jeffrey Bentoff did a little research and tells me that the second line actually says, "You've gotta spread the word …"

He must have asked his dog.

Steve Jagler Special to

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes in Milwaukee and is past president of the Milwaukee Press Club. BizTimes provides news and operational insight for the owners and managers of privately held companies throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

Steve has won several journalism awards as a reporter, a columnist and an editor. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

When he is not pursuing the news, Steve enjoys spending time with his wife, Kristi, and their two sons, Justin and James. Steve can be reached at