Ars Technica has an interesting breakdown of AT&T’s 1922 plan to single-handedly control every radio station in America:
But AT&T had another idea—a network of almost 40 radio stations strung together via the telco’s long distance lines. They would broadcast to local areas wirelessly and share content via AT&T’s long routes. The company intended [New York City radio station] WEAF as the beginning of that experiment. …
As for competing stations, they would be “minimized or foreclosed through the efforts of the local broadcast associations to function inclusively,” Wurtzler explains, “encouraging all… to join in the shared collective effort.”
If this sounds all nice and Woodstocky in print, AT&T’s implementation of the concept was far less pretty in practice, and that led to the scheme’s demise. First the telco began denying non-Bell System radio stations access to its long distance lines for shared projects, forcing other networks to experiment with inferior telegraph rather than telephone connections for their experiments. Then AT&T drew more anger by suing a nearby competitor to WEAF, claiming that its broadcast operation infringed on the carrier’s patents. “To the public, already disturbed at the growth and power of trusts and cartels, AT&T seemed to be jumping with hobnailed boots over the little fellow,” write historians Christopher Sterling and John Kitross.
AT&T abandoned its plans for broadcast domination in 1926, opting instead to monopolize the wireline connections between stations. In its place, RCA, General Electric, and Westinghouse formed NBC, with CBS and ABC following soon behind.
Ars speculates that AT&T’s withdrawal from broadcasting probably had a negative effect on innovation, with today’s broadcasters “constantly standing in the way of competing platforms, such as cable television, satellite radio, Low Power FM, and white space broadband.” I’m not so sure. It’s reasonable to assume AT&T would’ve been just as obstructing, if not more (if the company’s history since then is any indication).
Either way, it’s an interesting reminder of a technological future that might’ve been.
Can you hear me now?
Vanity Fair’s history of the Internet
The evil genius of AT&T MicroCells