Futurephone, Ready to Fight Back

Up from the canvas… it’s Futurephone! The international free-calling service that was shut down due to legal pressure from AT&T is readying a formal complaint with the FCC to get its Internet-based service back online.

“We feel we have a very strong legal position,” said Futurephone principal Tom Doolin, in a phone call Tuesday evening. Doolin, who said Futurephone spent most of the last three months keeping quiet while it sought legal help, is now asking for an accelerated judgement from the FCC to force AT&T and Qwest to pay their outstanding bills, and to allow Futurephone’s service to operate once again.

To recap, quickly: Futurephone was the poster child for the so-called Iowa free calling plans, where Internet service concerns (like Futurephone) partnered with rural telcos in Iowa to offer services like international calls or conference calls for just the price of a long-distance call to Iowa. The Iowa telcos, who had obtained higher-than-average termination fees — the amount a long-distance carrier like AT&T would pay to complete a call — stood to reap huge rewards from the delta between the cost of the service and the amount they charged the long-distance provider.

After becoming explosively popular last fall, the free-calling schemes came to a grinding halt early this year when AT&T and then Qwest filed lawsuits against the rural telcos and some of the providers, and refused to pay bills totaling in the tens of millions. So far the legal pressure has worked in the big telcos’ favor, as the smaller firms and telcos were forced to discontinue services; but now the providers are starting to fight back, and Futurephone’s formal complaint may finally force the FCC to break its silence on the matter.

“From what we hear, this whole situation is the buzz at the FCC,” said Doolin. “They’ve been waiting for an opportunity to look into it, and we’re going to give them that opportunity.”

While Futurephone goes through the steps of the formal complaint process — which includes a meeting with AT&T and Qwest to ask if they will drop their lawsuits — the company is soliciting public support at its website, which has shed its previous “This Service is no longer available” banner and now carries a brief explanation and a plea for the public to file informal complaints.

More soon, but first this final bit from Doolin: “We’re confident, from what our attorneys have told us, that nothing we did was illegal or improper. AT&T has been out there playing cowboy. We don’t think that’s right.”

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