The sentence was handed down by Judge Barbara Jones of Manhattan federal court three years after WorldCom collapsed in an $11 billion accounting fraud, wiping out billions of investor dollars.
Ebbers is the first of six former WorldCom executives and accountants facing sentencing this summer. The other five all pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate against their former boss.
Jones said Ebbers deserved a stiff sentence because he was a leader of the epic accounting fraud that toppled the telecom giant.
"Mr. Ebbers was the instigator of the fraud," said U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones as she prepared to pronounce his sentence.
Jones said she believed federal guidelines called for a sentence of between 30 years and life in prison. But she invited lawyers and the defendant to speak to her before a sentence was imposed.
Jones spoke shortly after a former employee told the court how his life was destroyed by Ebbers' greed.
Henry J. Bruin Jr., 37, a former salesman, said at Ebbers' sentencing hearing that the company's collapse three years ago caused him "untold human carnage" and put him through "sheer hell." He lost all of his savings and couldn't get another sales job.
Defense lawyer Brian Heberlig told the court Wednesday that Ebbers should not be punished more severely because of money lost by shareholders. He noted that economic factors led WorldCom stock to plummet from $35 a share to less than $1 before the fraud was revealed in June 2003.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Anders said the government acted conservatively in estimating loss. Jones said she agreed with the government's estimate that the fraud cost investors about $2 billion after it was disclosed.