This Gas Pipeline Is Poking Into At&T's Turf

Telephone calls and natural gas may have nothing in common, but for a long time, Williams Cos. sold both in the same no-frills way. While the big three long-distance carriers spewed out new services, billing plans, and advertising programs, the Tulsa-based gas-pipeline company, which owns the nation's fourth-largest fiber-optic network, quietly built up a business wholesaling long-distance circuits to other carriers and to a few large companies.

Now, the wholesaler is going retail. Instead of just offering leased circuits between fixed points, Williams Telecommunications Group Inc. will also offer conventional long-distance service that connects calls from anywhere to anywhere. That's possible because WilTel last month announced a preliminary deal to buy the switches and customers of Telesphere Communications Inc., the Oakbrook Terrace (Ill.) carrier that's reorganizing under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code. President Roy A. Wilkens says WilTel had to offer switched service in addition to leased lines to compete with American Telephone & Telegraph Co., which combines both in a discounted bundle. But WilTel will keep focusing on serving other carriers and big companies. As for entering the tough residential market, Wilkens says: "God forbid."

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