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at&t and FuturePhone – POTS Calls the Kettle Black

Paul Kapustka at GigaOM describes how a lawsuit from at&t has apparently led to shutting down FuturePhone which used to provide “free” international calls for the price of a domestic call to Iowa.  Alec Saunders .LOG and Fractals of Change both have posted on how the arbitrage scheme worked that made this a profitable business for companies in rural Iowa.  It’s all based on the high access charges which rural telcos can charge in some cases for each minute of calls which come into their territory.

at&t, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, is “shocked, shocked” to find that there is arbitrage going on and somebody is collecting monopoly rents for the privilege of terminating calls.

at&t is now the biggest local phone company in the country. Every time somebody makes a “long distance” call to one of its subscribers, at&t collects something like a penny a minute (rates very state by state) for completing the call to the phone line which the subscriber is already paying at&t rent for the use of. Granted, this isn’t anything near the $.14/minute that the rural carriers in Iowa are reportedly getting.  But it isn’t only in Iowa.  And isn’t chump change. It’s billions of dollar per year.  The two million that at&t claims it was charged in Iowa would be lost in the rounding.

In a delicious piece of irony, back in 2004 SBC sued AT&T (which it now owns) for avoiding access charges by routing calls over its Internet backbone. The complaint alleges: “... AT&T orchestrated and implemented a fraudulent scheme to avoid tariffed ‘access charges’ by delivering its long-distance calls for termination over facilities that AT&T obtained under the express condition that they be used for local traffic, and thereby disguising its long-distance calls as local calls.”

Now at&t is alleging that FuturePhone calls are being described as domestic long distance when they’re really international.

Local?  Long distance?  International?  Why’s it important anyway? Not because of actual costs.  Costs on the Internet over which these calls are being routed isn’t sensitive to distance at all; and, truth to tell, other than international tariffs and other monopoly rents, switching costs and not distance are the main cost component on POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service).  Certainly the cost to terminate a call on a local network has nothing to do with where that call originated.

These distinctions matter because current regulations allow both Superior Telephone Cooperative in Iowa and at&t to charge monopoly rents. The right regulatory solution is simply to abolish access charges (they have been reduced some). But that’s not the relief at&t is asking for. They’re happy to collect; they just don’t wanna pay.

Techdirt puts it well:

“No matter what happens, this demonstrates the continued problems with these attempts to build up the Universal Service Fee, or other taxes designed to provide more telco services to rural places. They're almost always misused in a way that ends up in some telco's pocket -- rather than actually being invested in telco service improvements. Of course, AT&T has been the beneficiary of many of these regulations in the past -- but it brings out the legal guns when such a plan takes money out of its pocket instead of putting it in.”

BTW, if you still want to make “free” international calls by calling an Iowa number, try 712.858.8094. AllFreeCalls is still in operation; just be sure you realize that it answers first in Mandarin.  Don’t know if they’ll be able to withstand and at&t onslaught but you shouldn’t feel guilty about aritraging an arbitrager in the meantime.

Price – Splitting the Pie – Access Charges has more about how access charges work and the historical basis for them.

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference at&t and FuturePhone – POTS Calls the Kettle Black:

» Cheapskates Guide to International Calls from The Search Box
I just sent my daughter off to Florence, Italy for a semester abroad. Naturally, I wanted to connect with her the cheapest and best way possible. Fortunately she had a Motorola V551 which is a quad band phone required to handle European GSM frequencies... [Read More]

» The end of the Iowa hack? from Christopher Herot's Weblog
Last month I wrote about the loophole in the telecom settlement scheme whereby companies such as AllFreeCalls could strike deals with CLECs in sparsely populated regions to split the higher-than-normal termination charges they collected from ILECs. A l... [Read More]

» Telco BLocking as Symptom of Universal Service from PeerFlow
Why should they act differently as ISPs than they have been as POTS telcos after 2008 if there is no net neutrality on the public Internet? [Read More]

Comments

olaoluwa simeon oguntuyaki

i want to change my number.

Winterwarmer

Hi Guys,

The debate rolls on over At&T's actions. All on all ot is a big company trying to suppress new companies getting in on their territory.

We are talking about a worldwide trillion dollar industry! Big bucks to be made and it is always going to be a battle for a slice of the 'pie' being leveraged away from the established giants out there.

Anyways, I am positive that they will not win out in the long run - suppressing forever.

One new company is very interesting to have a look at. It is Global1touch. They have new patent pending VoIP technology that sets it apart from others. ie. You can use call-back on your mobile WITHOUT using your 'free' minutes. This is part of their patent pending technology.

They are introducing expanded services rapidly and is set to be a strong contender out there. Take a look here: http://www.global1touch.com/world

Watch the video and look also at the free and other calling plans - plus there is an opportunity to be a member sharing in the profits of the company.

Winterwarmer

d.l.

The failure to point out that AT&T, including the former SBC, has for years been the biggest proponent of replacing the existing system of access charges with a system of "bill-and-keep" (no terminating charges), is noteworthy. The rural carriers are truly the only significant obstacle to achieving bill and keep. And they are so significant that such reform is extremely unlikely despite AT&T's lobbying efforts.

Pat Phelan

Hi Tom
I think the most important part in Paul's post is below
Hopefully we can continue to give calls to our customers whilst being attacked by the incumbent.

"Telco legal sources we talked to said that while the suit’s merit can certainly be contested, what it does immediately is give AT&T a legal reason to stall payments of such monthly bills, which could effectively strong-arm the startups out of business"

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