Wednesday, April 11, 2007

FreeConference breaks the roadblock

Interesting development in the case of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and Qwest vs. FreeConference.Com, which we reported on last month (see below). FreeConference says Qwest and Cingular have stopped blocking their calls after an angry outpouring from customers.

FreeConference is a web-based service that allows users to make conference calls with a single long distance call. The telecoms began blocking FreeConference claiming the service was pulling a quick one by exploiting a loophole in telecommunications law. They said multiple people were never intended to be connected on one line. FreeConference officials said what they were doing was perfectly legal, but the telecoms were actually worried about all the business they were losing to the upstart.

The blocking generated loud complaints from consumer groups. Here's an excerpt of an e-mail from FreeConference:

Based on what Cingular's Office of the President describes as "an overwhelming response from customers", they have ceased blocking calls to our service. Qwest has also stopped blocking. This is all due to the loyal support you have shown FreeConference by protesting these carriers' actions directly. Over 4,000 of you responded to our last note and went directly to the FCC site to register a complaint!
As reported in the LA Times, the FCC has said that ALL call blocking actions will cease until they can permanently resolve these service issues with AT&T/Cingular, Qwest, and Sprint.

It's hard not to see the whole thing as a cautionary tale with implications for net neutrality. Net neutrality supporters have always worried the big telecoms might resort to blocking web sites of rival businesses. The customer would lose by having fewer choices. Of course, the FreeConference incident involves phones not the Internet, but if the telecoms are willing to block calls why not web sites?

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