Charlie Brown, AT&T

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Charles Brown will forever go down in telecom history as the man who formally took the hammer to AT&T's (NYSE: T) Bell System in 1984.

Charles Brown, AT&T

Brown (image source: porticus.org)

Brown was handpicked by his predecessor John DeButts, who often said during his seven year tenure as the CEO and chairman of AT&T (1972-1979) that telephone service competition from upstarts like the then-relatively-new MCI was "unhealthy."

The U.S. Justice Department, in its initial 1974 antitrust case against AT&T, mandated that Western Electric, which served as the Bell System's manufacturing subsidiary, be spun out as a separate company. But as the well-known story goes, Brown decided the best solution was to keep Western Electric and instead divested all its local telephone companies.

Brown--and AT&T's--big bet was that it could make a name for itself in the computer industry through the creation of what it called AT&T Computer Systems. However, neither Brown nor his successor Bob Allen, who led the disastrous acquisition of NCR, could help the telco gain any real momentum in the computer industry.

In 1995, AT&T announced a "trivestiture" where AT&T became a service company, NCR became an independent company, and the telecom equipment business formally known as Western Electric became Lucent Technologies.

One reader lamented in last year's inaugural Worst CEOs feature that if Brown had kept the local service arm, "We would still have the best telco in the world if he had just gave up the manufacturing piece and kept the LECs with the mother company of AT&T Long Lines."

Fast forward to 2012. What exists in the U.S. telecom market is a duopoly of the new AT&T and Verizon (NYSE: VZ). Both of these providers offer consumers and businesses an array of services, including traditional local and long-distance telephone service, wireless, broadband Internet, and video.

Mike Noll, a FierceTelecom columnist, asked in a column looking back at the 27-year anniversary of the Bell System breakup whether consumers would notice a big difference if AT&T had just kept the local telephone companies and spun out Western Electric instead.

"About the only difference is that today there is much less regulation of telecommunication in the United States, and one could question whether today's mostly unregulated duopoly is better for consumers than the regulated monopoly of the past," wrote Noll.