“We Don’t Care. We’re the Phone Company. We Don’t Have To”

It was almost forty years ago that Lily Tomlin’s character Ernestine uttered those words on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In. We all laughed; we all knew that AT&T, which controlled almost all local and long distance telephoning in America, could do as it pleased.

Until, that is, it ran afoul of anti-trust suits. It was broken up, in 1984, into what came to be known as the “Baby Bells.” We all thought that, from then on, our phone companies would have to care.

“From then on” ended last December, when BellSouth acquired AT&T and took on its name, creating a new, dominant AT&T. A company that, once more, doesn’t care.

It proved it to me this morning, when a character calling himself “Sam Lewis” called me from the office of the president, responding to a letter of complaint I had sent.

The complaint stems from the blocking of Cingular users’ ability to call a teleconferencing service in Iowa (details of why the number is blocked can be found here with my own experience here). “Lewis” wanted to assure me, somehow, that the new AT&T cares—by saying to me that it doesn’t.

I didn’t record the call, so can’t give his exact words, but the upshot was that what the customers want doesn’t matter. It is settled; we cant call freeconference.com because AT&T is in a dispute with Iowa telephone providers and companies like freeconference.com. A dispute that has nothing to do with us, the consumers. It’s over, he told me (though not exactly in those words). Get used to it. Move on.

Why didn’t he just admit that the new AT&T is just too big to care about its customers? Why didn’t he just say, like Ernestine, “We don’t care…. We don’t have to”?