Looks like the empire is finding new ways to fight back — according to FreeConference.com, another rural-ISP free-calling operator, major carriers Cingular, Qwest and Sprint are actively blocking users trying to call FreeConference.com, claiming it might be a violation of those carriers’ acceptable use policies. FreeConference.com, […]

Looks like the empire is finding new ways to fight back — according to FreeConference.com, another rural-ISP free-calling operator, major carriers Cingular, Qwest and Sprint are actively blocking users trying to call FreeConference.com, claiming it might be a violation of those carriers’ acceptable use policies.

FreeConference.com, which offers “free” conference calls for the price of a long-distance call to numbers in Iowa or Minnesota, sent an email to its users saying that Cingular (aka AT&T Wireless) started blocking calls to FreeConference.com on March 9, with Qwest and Sprint following suit soon thereafter. FreeConference.com CEO Alex Cory told us in an email exchange today that the company “did not get prior notice [about the blocking], nor have our or our customers’ repeated attempts to get reasonable explanations gotten anywhere.” UPDATE: An AT&T spokesperson confirmed the company is blocking the calls.

While the blocking doesn’t seem to be a blanket move — we were able to get through to FreeConference.com this morning using a Cingular handset in California — Cory says that any blocking, even limited blocking, “is unacceptable.” Langauge from a Cingular user forum shows why Cingular may believe it is right to block such services:

We may block access to certain categories of numbers (e.g. 976, 900 and certain international destinations) or certain web sites if, in our sole discretion, we are experiencing excessive billing, collection, fraud problems or other misuse of our network.

AT&T spokesperson Mark Siegel said the company is blocking “certain numbers” for conferecing services, including FreeConferece.com’s, an action it feels appropriate under its wireless terms of service agreements. AT&T’s wireless service, he said, is for calls “between one person and another person, not between one person and many.”

Cory, who says that FreeConference.com’s regulatory-fee arbitrage compensation structure isn’t on the same level as the free international calling plans (he claims all FreeConference.com’s calls are actually terminated in the local area where they are connected), doesn’t agree with Cingular’s take but will not comment much further — “We believe they are violating [regulations], but it is probably best to leave this to the lawyers.”

Theoretically, AT&T could be on the hook for multiple call-termination charges for the conference calls, since each participant in the conference could count as another termination — so it’s pretty clear why they might try to use any method at their disposal to discourge such operations.

Typically, long-distance or cellular providers pay local telcos a termination fee for each call that is completed. In rural areas where regional telcos have higher-than-usual termination fees, telcos and free-calling concerns have partnered to build businesses where some amount of profit is based on the spread between what the call-completion costs and what they charge the long-distance provider.

Additional reporting by Katie Fehrenbacher.

By Paul Kapustka

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  1. That’s strange. I’m a Cingular customer and I just used them for about 45 minutes on Tuesday, March 13th.

  2. Paul Kapustka Thursday, March 15, 2007

    Eric, the post does say it appears to be limited blocking. I was able to get through today as well.

  3. AT&T/Cingular appear to be blocking new numbers as they learn of them, and I believe Free Conference Call.com is trying to stay ahead of them by adding new numbers.

    Consumers should not be held hostage to AT&T’s disputes with local phone companies or free conference call services. AT&T’s anti-consumer action in this context has broad implications. It’s an example of what is at stake in the fight for Internet freedom — a corporation’s financial interests limiting consumer choice and access to legitimate, publicly available services. AT&T, of course, is one of the companies opposed to Internet freedom.

  4. I am sorry, but will the author or someone clarify, what in the world is att’s problem here…

  5. Paul Kapustka Thursday, March 15, 2007

    Ajay, AT&T reply and some background added to the post. Basically, such services could cost them a huge amount in termination fees (if you saw previous posts on this subject the Iowa telcos are claiming AT&T owes them $12 million so far for just a few months’ billing).

  6. I can understand AT&T’s position. It does seem as if they are being taken advantage of by FCC regulations that are not benefitting them. Yet I don’t have a lot of sympathy for them. I think the operative phrase might be, “Payback’s a bitch”.

    When I received the email from FreeConference.com, I set up a conference call and verified that Cingular is in fact blocking my calls to that number. One person has noted that Cingular does have policies against using cellphones to make conference calls. (You can see more about it in my blog post).

    However, as I read the policy it does not apply to all Cingular phones (including mine in particular). It might be that there is some other policy that does apply, but I haven’t found it.

    I guess, from my perspective, it is inappropriate for a large telecommuncation’s firm to try and change FCC policies that they don’t like by denying service to their customers.

    I have filed a complaint with the Connecticut Attorney General’s office as well as with the FCC. I hope others consider doing the same. Customers should not be pawns in power struggles between different telecom companies.

  7. I don’t have an exhaustive understanding of Cingular’s policies, but I do know the company offers a conference call option as part of their services. You can conference in as many as five additional callers (if you have the right phone), and are billed minutes for all six participants (you and your five guests).
    That doesn’t sound like a very good deal to me.

    And it leaves me wondering why Cingular would have a policy against using cell phones for conference calls yet promote their own conference call option very prominently in the list of features.

  8. As soon as they ID each of of these new “free” access numbers, the carriers should forward the calls to the freeconferencecall.com toll-free number. Haha.

  9. Everyone is focusing on what AT&T pays rather than the balance between what they pay and what they collect. These conferencing services have created a large new market of conferencing users (who couldn’t afford the 30-40 cents per minute AT&T used to charge) that are primarily making toll calls to reach the conference bridges. This generates revenues to AT&T. What are they arguing? that since you bought a block of minutes on your cellphone, the fact that you used them caused them damage because they didn’t expect you would? On average, long distance carriers generate 7-8 cents a minute in revenues. Access fees are substantially less on average, and certainly with our partners. AT&T dominates the 800-service market and they would much rather push consumers back to 800 conferencing where they have full control over pricing and can continue to overbill you for your long distance minutes through a float and carry game.

  10. The telephone companies thought they were real smart when they came out with unlimited plans and nationwide long distance. Originally they made lots more many per customer on these type of plans. Now that services have popped up that make use of the minutes they don’t like it and have to pay. They created this system and will have to pay for these calls until it’s changed.

    I guess the dinosaurs from the monopoly days at AT&T are still there and think they can get away with this. I will file a complaint with the FCC as well.


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