No. 4 tech story of 2011: AT&T's $4 billion blink

Wireless carrier withdraws controversial $39 billion bid to buy T-Mobile USA

This is the eighth post for "My personal, hand-selected top 11 tech stories of 2011." You can read the first seven by clicking on the links at the bottom.

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I freely admit to enjoying the spectacle of AT&T's $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA falling apart late this year in the face of surprisingly determined opposition from federal antitrust regulators.

AT&T tried every con in the book to persuade the public, politicians media and -- most importantly -- the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission that reducing the number of national carriers in the U.S. to three from four would somehow benefit consumers and spur innovation.

It didn't work. The deal that shook the tech and financial worlds when it was announced on March 20 was killed by AT&T on December 19, a mere nine months later and days after company attorneys vowed to continue fighting for regulatory approval.

AT&T would like to believe (or at least would like us to believe) that its planned acquisition of T-Mobile from Deutsche Telekom was doomed by biased staffers for the Federal Communications Commission, which unfairly released a damaging report about the deal late last month even though AT&T had withdrawn its merger application in an effort to outmaneuver the regulatory process.

Or that it was doomed by professional antitrust zealots in the U.S. Department of Justice who never gave AT&T a chance to explain the advantages to consumers of consolidating the U.S. wireless carrier market.

Or that it was doomed by the anti-corporate media. Or the anti-business climate fostered by the Occupy movement that decries the injustices of income disparity and the corrosive effect of corporate lobbying on our political system.

But as much as company executives tried to force approval of the deal, it was clear -- probably even to them -- that federal regulators weren't going to provide a rubber stamp.

Within weeks the DoJ was asking AT&T for more information supporting its contention that the T-Mobile merger would not harm consumers. AT&T executives were grilled by skeptical legislators during public hearings.

The FCC wanted more answers, state commissions got involved.

Then, sensing it was losing the battle, AT&T got desperate, attempting to sell spectrum and subscribers and to offer to return 5,000 call-center jobs to the U.S. if regulators approved the deal. It even bribed churches and charities to urge the FCC to green-light the merger in return for a nice little donation.

None of this could stop the U.S. Justice Department from filing a lawsuit on August 31 to block the T-Mobile deal. Whatever was going on behind closed doors, antitrust regulators were declaring in public their commitment to the AT&T lawsuit.

By late November, even AT&T knew it was over for what one antitrust expert had called "the most brazen merger proposal in history." All that was left was the blaming -- and the $4 billion AT&T owed to Deutsche Telekom as a penalty for the deal falling through.

Top 11 tech stories of 2011 linksNo. 11: Netflix's public suicide art project No. 10: The cloud rises No. 9: Tales of tablet triumph, tragedy No. 8: Patent wars No. 7: The social 'bubble' No. 6: Meet the new boss No. 5: HP's meltdown
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