While poking around on Wikipedia I came across this interesting graphic. It’s a map of the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs), the regional telecom monopolies — I’m sorry, I meant incumbent carriers — showing their coverage of the U.S. both today and back at deregulation in 1988. It’s worth taking a look at.

The color-coding represents their territory coverage today, while the shaded lines mark boundaries between RBOCs at deregulation.

Ironically, there are fewer of them today than there were in 1988. That’s right; for all the effort that went into deregulating Ma Bell, she’s putting herself back together again, Terminator-style.

Consider the southeast and midwest, which has been subject to the greatest amount of reconsolidation. Originally, there were three RBOCs: BellSouth, Southwestern Bell, and Ameritech. BellSouth had the southeast from Kentucky to Florida; Southwestern Bell had the southern part of the midwest from Missouri to Texas; and Ameritech had the Great Lakes region, from Wisconsin east to Ohio.

Today, you’ll find scant evidence of those companies — they’re all parts of the AT&T empire once more, along with the former California and Nevada RBOC, Pacific Telesis. The rest of the nation is basically split between Quest in the West and Verizon in the East.

It’s looking more and more like 1988 will be remembered as the high-water mark for telco competition in the U.S., with a total of eight regional operating companies. Now, we’re down to three.

It’s as though the U.S., with a few years to dull the bad memories of high rates and rented phones, has forgotten what life under a monopoly carrier was like. If we’re not careful — especially with the evisceration of many pro-competition policies in the fallout from USTA v. FCC (2004)1 — we’re going to end up back in some places we’d probably rather not return to.

Footnote 1: One of the best summaries of the issues at play in USTA v. FCC was written in early 2004, before the USSC declined to take up the case. It’s “USTA v. FCC: A Decision Ripe for the Supremes” by Fred R. Goldstein and Jonathan S. Marashlian. Here’s the money shot:

[T]he 62-page decision vacating the Federal Communications Commission’s (“FCC”) Triennial Review Order (“TRO”) can be best described as threatening to gut over 8 years of hard work, sacrifice and the billions of dollars that have been invested by entrepreneurial competitive local exchange carriers (“CLECs”) that are just beginning to create competition in the local telecom marketplace.

Why such a pessimistic analysis? Because unless the DC Circuit’s decision is stayed by the Supreme Court, many of the FCC rules that require incumbent local exchange carriers (“ILEC”) to share key elements of their networks with competitors, the rules which are the foundation of the still nascent competitive local market, will be vacated.

Of course, we know that’s exactly what the Supreme Court did, or rather declined to do; the decision wasn’t taken up for review, the DC Circuit’s pro-RBOC decision stood, and years of progress in bringing competition to telecommunications at the local level disappeared virtually overnight.