How ILECs Work

By: Dave Roos

Years ago when MASH was on TV, phone service was controlled by AT&T.
Years ago when MASH was on TV, phone service was controlled by AT&T.
© CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

If you're old enough to have watched "MASH" before it was in re-runs, then you remember when there was only one telephone company in the United States and its name was "Ma Bell." Well, technically its name was AT&T, but the nation's one and only local and long-distance telephone service was universally recognized by its classic Bell System logo.

If you were moving to your first apartment and needed a telephone, you didn't walk down to Radio Shack and browse the latest models. You went to the phone company and "rented" one of theirs. No, you couldn't even buy a phone, you only paid for the temporary use of a phone and the network to which it was connected. AT&T said it was the only way to ensure that all phones worked well with the network's hardware, but other people said it was all part of a strangely un-American, hugely unfair monopoly.


In the early 1980s, the U.S. government forced AT&T to break up into seven smaller local phone companies. And in 1996, the Federal Communications Commission forced these seven local phone companies, known as the Baby Bells, to open up their networks to outside competition.

The result was the creation of two new regulatory terms, ILEC and CLEC. ILECs, short for Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers, are the former Baby Bells. CLECs -- Competitive Local Exchange Carriers -- are all the new guys who want a piece of the telecommunications pie. ILECs and CLECs don't always get along. ILECs say it's unconstitutional to have to sell space on their networks to their competition. And CLECs say that ILECs continue to unfairly prevent them from doing business.

How did all of this get so complicated? Why can't there just be different phone companies with different networks? Has the FCC really made the telecommunications sector more competitive, or are things pretty much back to the way they were 30 years ago? Keep reading to learn the fascinating history of ILECs.