Cingular, Qwest blocking ‘Free’ Calls

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.


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