Take a trip with me in the way-back machine to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Lily Tomlin on "Laugh-In" and "Saturday Night Live" made famous her character "Ernestine," the rude, pinch-faced telephone operator.
"We don't care," she informed unhappy customers. "We don't have to — we're The Phone Company."
It was black humor in the days when AT&T had a veritable stranglehold on the telephone business in the United States. Without any competition to speak of, the phone company really didn't have to care.
Now fast-forward four decades, passing along the way the federal anti-trust case that broke up AT&T and set off widespread competition in the telephone business, along with technological advances that have transformed the industry that not so long ago was limited to rotary-dial phones and hard-wire connections.
How much does AT&T care now? Very, very much.
That may not seem the case if you're a subscriber dealing with their customer services available online or by phone. While mobile phones have become more and more user-friendly and phone companies have branched out into data and cable service, the nation's largest provider of those services seems to have gone in the opposite direction. AT&T, from my personal perspective, is the most maddening and frustrating company I deal with. They don't seem to care about me other than to collect my monthly bills.
But AT&T most certainly cares about the people who regulate its business. Especially in California.
In Sunday's Page 1 story, reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, we learned that no corporation has spent as much money trying to influence lawmakers in Sacramento as AT&T. Since 1999, the company and its affiliates have spent $47 million on lobbying — twice the amount of the second-biggest corporate spender. And that's on top of about $1 million a year in campaign contributions handed out by AT&T.
Where does that money come from? Well, from me, for one. And you, too, if you're an AT&T customer.
And what are we getting for it? Nothing much, if you ask lawmakers or AT&T execs. Assembly Speaker John Perez, who has been treated to high-ticket golf outings, NBA Finals games and other perks by AT&T, said none of those gifts would influence policy decisions in the Capitol. And Ken McNeely, president of AT&T California, said the big spending is just his company's way to "participate actively in the public policy arena."
But no company throws that kind of money around if it doesn't get something in return, and AT&T has had a lot of success in the face of adversity around the Capitol. As the Times story pointed out, the company's lobbying efforts have coincided with a period in which "a tide of consumer protections has ebbed and the company has been unshackled from the watchful eye of state regulators."
Efforts to increase transparency on your cell phone bill were killed. State controls on landline prices were eliminated. Legislation that would have allowed you to opt out of receiving the phone book was defeated. In fact, by successfully defeating just one piece of legislation, AT&T paid for a decade of lobbying. Its successful fight against the effort to end monthly charges that consumers pay to unlist their phone number is worth $50 million a year to AT&T, according to the Times.