Hell of a Way to Get Out of Your AT&T Contract, Varney…
Earlier this year Christine Varney, the Justice Department’s new antitrust chief, said she planned to return the Department to a policy that led to landmark antitrust suits like the one against Microsoft (MSFT) in the ’90s. And she delivered on that promise in short order.
Since Varney’s confirmation in late April, the Department of Justice has seen a sort of Trustbuster renaissance. The DOJ has begun inquiring into potentially anticompetitive recruiting practices in Silicon Valley. It opened an investigation into the Google Books (GOOG) settlement. And now, the Department is scrutinizing cellphone exclusivity deals like the lucrative one between Apple (AAPL) and AT&T (T). Sources close to the DOJ tell The Wall Street Journal that the agency is probing such deals to see if they adversely restrict consumer choice or hamper competition.
The inquiry, which is in its very early stages, follows recent calls for the Federal Communications Commission to open a similar investigation, and it remains to be seen what, if anything, will come of it. For while exclusivity deals may undermine consumers, there’s little doubt that they benefit them as well. After all, AT&T’s iPhone deal with Apple scared the hell out the entire industry, forcing innovations in handsets and networks alike. Were it not for that deal, we might not be seeing the network improvements now occurring–the deployment of high-speed downlink packet access and long-term evolution, or LTE, networks, for example. And we almost certainly wouldn’t have devices like the Palm (PALM) Pre and the BlackBerry Storm.