Reminder from AT&T: Your AT&T/Cingular-provisioned cell phone is not for conference calls

Reminder from AT&T: Your AT&T/Cingular-provisioned cell phone is not for conference calls

Summary: Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica has confirmed with AT&T (Cingular) officials that the company is blocking its subscribers from reaching certain free conference call services because of how much it is costing the company. From the way the piece describes how the free services work, it does appear as though certain Iowa-based telcos are using a combination of loopholes and kickbacks to rip-off bigger carriers like AT&T.

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TOPICS: Mobility
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Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica has confirmed with AT&T (Cingular) officials that the company is blocking its subscribers from reaching certain free conference call services because of how much it is costing the company. From the way the piece describes how the free services work, it does appear as though certain Iowa-based telcos are using a combination of loopholes and kickbacks to rip-off bigger carriers like AT&T. But whether AT&T is in the right or not to selectively block your cell phone from making calls to certain numbers pales in comparison to this statement given to Ars Technica by the company:

In the wireless part of AT&T's terms of service, we're very clear that wireless calling is meant for one person to talk to another. It's not meant for one person to call one of these lines, and we reserve the right to block calls to a variety of lines. We have chosen to do so here.

Perhaps a ZDNet reader can find the offending language and post it in the comments below (if so, I'll link it from here). But the policy and the fiasco raises all sorts of interesting questions about a slippery slope. Based on comments from company officials, the decision seems to be one based mostly on the extraordinary cost of carrying calls to specific services in the 712 area code:

Cingular spokesperson Mark Siegel told Ars that the reason the company has decided to start blocking these services is because high volumes of calls to similar services are costly, and the cost for those calls aren't passed on to the customer.

Economic infeasibility as an excuse to cut subscribers off from calling the phone number of their choice is in the same family of crutches as the ones used by the Regulatorium to propogate the bandwidth scarcity myth that artificially protects most carriers from Internet-induced collapse.

One question that comes to my mind is, of the conferencing services AT&T still lets us dial out to, what if AT&T eventually decides that allowing its customers to use those services instead of the one run by AT&T starts to become economically infeasible? Apparently, according to the subscriber contract,  you shouldn't have been using those services in the first place. Sound outlandish? Then consider this. Just because you bought a cell phone for certain features doesn't always mean they'll work. For example, there are plenty of phones that are born with the capability to load your own ringtone into them from your PC or a Web site. But, at $4 or more a pop for crappy sounding music (when the entire song costs 99 cents from places like iTunes.. go figure), ringtones are a big business for the carriers and so, before those phones are allowed into subscribers' hands, the phone manufactures must disable the capability.

Economic feasibility? Walled gardens? Highway roberry? Choose your metaphor.

Topic: Mobility

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12 comments
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  • You're not getting the point here...

    What has happened is quite simply this:
    The 712 exchange was caught in a loophole that was used before in the 809 area code (can't recall the country right now). Either way it works like this: Originating calls are VERY CHEAP, Terminating calls (since its the middle of nowhere) are EXPENSIVE, SO to offset the expensive termination they split the cost with the carrier, and so make it more affordable to terminate calls to that region. But this gets abused (through legal loopholes) and it ends up being a CASH GRAB, since a technical 'free' call costs a carrier 3x, while the reduced savings are passed on to the customer. But someone still has to pay the bill, its just simply a loophole that is going to be closed. 809 had this, its gone now, IOWA squeeked through, now it will be fixed. And irregardless of what you think, your cell company can do as they please with their AUP, because if you don't like it you can switch, but I doubt a lot of people will. This is just something that needed to be fixed.
    jakex39
    • 809 = Dominican Republic

      And the area code still exists. The problem with 809 is it's part of the NADP/NANP and acts like a "normal" long distance call (don't have to use a country code). But the calls still carry an international rate. Party/Psychic lines used to route through 809 so they could charge higher rates and get around international call blocking. Customers had no idea they were calling another country.

      Same situation here - termination charges for 712 are extremly high. If you call from a land line, the access charges get passed on to the customer and ATT is happy. If you use a cell phone - the cell carrier has to eat the charges. So there's nothing to be fixed. These conference calls are just taking advantage of the situation.

      MCI got busted a few years ago for playing the access charge game. They claimed it was common practice among all carriers.
      jshaw4343
    • missing the point (part 2)

      Missing the point?...perhaps everyone is doing this...the term `Cingular` is surely a play upon the words of Cell and Singular....now I don`t know about you guys...but to me, Singular means one...ie this is a one-to-one cell phone service and it actually states this in its terms and conditions...so using it for conference calling is surely against the terms that the user has agreed to, and also against the spirit of the contract...therefore AT&T have , in my opinion, every right to curtail any practise that is abusive of those terms and conditions....what`s the problem?...don`t like it?...easy answer...change contract/supplier...
      hanoveral
      • Nope, still missing the point

        "[i]...so using it for conference calling is surely against the terms that the user has agreed to, and also against the spirit of the contract...[/i]"

        You are dead wrong. I interviewed Mark Siegel yesterday. He said, "[b]I want to make this clear. [Cingular's] customers aren't doing anything wrong[/b]." Take a second to absorb that.

        AT&T's premise is NOT that their customers are violating their service agreement. AT&T is claiming that the service agreement gives them the right to block users from calling "certain categories of numbers" at its sole discretion. The agreement specifies, as an example, 900 and 976 numbers, both of which are premium service numbers charged directly to the end user. Furthermore, 900 is an area code not assigned to any geographic region (like area code 800) and 976 is an exchange NOT assigned to ANY local exchange carrier.

        Cingular is flaunting FCC orders and probably violating THEIR END of the service agreement.

        "[i]don`t like it?...easy answer...change contract/supplier...[/i]"

        Yeah, a lot of trolls are running around posting that crap. But of course that's nonsense because Cingular won't release its customers from their contracts. And I don't suppose Cingular would respond well to customers who -- like AT&T -- just stop paying their bills because they think the company is exploiting a "loophole" in the service agreement: which, btw, they are.
        Todd Johnston
  • I wonder if blocking is more extensive than we suspect

    Your post made me reconsider a problem I've had lately dialing European mobile phone numbers from my landline (MCI is my long distance provider.) I juat assumed that the fast busy signals and other failures were flukes (though in the two last cases I was successful in sending an IM -- knowing that some mobile services charge for incoming calls, could it be that providers like MCI are doing a little blocking of their own?
    josh16
  • Re: Reminder from ATT

    These are the comapnies that say we don't need net neutrality regulations.



    :)
    none none
  • This is a lazy post...

    ...satisfied with regurgitating an Ars Technica piece that reads like an AT&T press release.

    "...it does appear as though certain Iowa-based telcos are using a combination of loopholes and kickbacks to rip-off bigger carriers like AT&T."

    And that statement is simply irresponsible. The businesses that offer free conference call services are paid a commission for the traffic they bring in, equal to about 15-20% of the LEC's termination fee, or about 1-2 cents per minute. ARS Technica puts their negative spin on the arrangement stating "[the] fees are split" and the businesses "make a pretty penny," implying that these details are secretive or flaunting the law.

    And based on that, Mr. Berlind plays his part in "whisper down the lane," ratcheting up the language to "loopholes," "kickbacks," and "rip-offs."

    Shame on ZDNet.com. For a company claiming to have won its audience with "editorial integrity," this over-hyped riff on someone else's work, is lacking in both.

    The distance between "propagating" and "propaganda" is etymologically short, and neither is anywhere near setting the "gold standard for publishing content on the Internet."

    And FYI, if Cingular truly believes they sell wireless minutes "meant for one person to talk to another," why do their flagship Motorola phones all have [b]built-in[/b] conference calling features?

    For those who prefer original reporting based on gathering and analyzing facts, try this instead:

    http://scoop.epluribusmedia.org/story/2007/3/19/6578/45282
    Todd Johnston
  • Research?

    "Perhaps a ZDNet reader can find the offending language and post it in the comments below"

    Perhaps they could, if it existed. It doesn't. Cingular is telling its customers, like me, that this clause justifies blocking traffic the traffic to Iowa:

    "[i]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[/i]."

    Now, compare the service agreement to this FCC ruling from 2004:

    "[i][Allowing] IXCs unilaterally and without restriction to refuse to terminate calls or indiscriminately to pick and choose which traffic they will deliver would result in substantial confusion for consumers, would fundamentally disrupt the workings of the public switched telephone network, and would harm universal service[/i]."

    Here's another from [b]six years ago[/b]:

    "[i]In some instances, AT&T...is blocking traffic, thus raising various consumer and service quality issues...If such refusals to exchange traffic were to become a routine bargaining tool, callers might never be assured that their calls would go through. We are particularly concerned with preventing such a degradation of the country's telecommunications network. It is not difficult to foresee instances in which the failure of a call to go through would represent a serious problem, and, in certain circumstances, it could be life-threatening[/i]."

    The issue at hand is not about AT&T getting "ripped off" although it is most certainly about "[economic] infeasibility as an excuse to cut subscribers off from calling the phone number of their choice." The FCC allows certain LECs to charge higher termination fees BECAUSE it is economically infeasible for small telephone companies to stay in business in rural areas.

    sources:
    https://onlinecare.cingular.com/my-account/legal/service-agreement.jsp
    http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-04-110A1.pdf
    http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-01-146A1.pdf
    Todd Johnston
  • Only talk to one person?

    Intersting. Per ATT rep calls are for one person to another only. However, at http://www.cingular.com/cell-phone-service/cell-phone-plan-details/?q_sku=sku1020011&q_planCategory=cat1370011 part of the plan is for 3 way calling. That is at least one more than ATT rep says is allowed.
    wmesel
  • the terms and condtions of the plans

    "Unlimited voice services are provided solely for live dialog between two individuals. Unlimited voice services may not be used for conference calling, call forwarding, monitoring services, data transmissions, transmission of broadcasts, transmission of recorded material, or other connections that do not consist of uninterrupted live dialog between two individuals."

    It seems this only applies to UNLIMITED voice calling, so if someone where to call at peak times this would not apply. This passages seems to be protection against a person siting in a concert, or having an 8 hour data download on a server. It is NOT meant to prevent someone from calling a conference service. Also being that cingular promotes it's 3 way calling, I don't see how it would apply. On the other hand, if a specific telephone company is trying to rip everyone off, (a big IF) I might see why AT&T would try to cut them off.

    Does anyone know if this area code is really THAT bad?
    el1jones
    • But you're missing the big picture

      Neither the Iowa rural telcos OR the conference call providers are "ripping off" anyone. What they ARE doing is offering a free or low-priced service that apparently many people want but cannot afford. Their customers are not freeloaders looking for dial-a-porn; they are charities, community activists, and support groups who have limited funds.

      Because they install [b]proprietary hardware conference bridges[/b] directly on the local carrier's network, the incoming calls are terminated on that network as defined by the FCC. Nothing in any of this is illegal -- even AT&T isn't claiming it's illegal. [b]Note VERY CAREFULLY: AT&T, in a dispute over FCC mandated fees, is justifying its action against another CARRIER, based on an agreement between AT&T and its CUSTOMERS[/b].

      AT&T is claiming that its contract with its customers supersedes the FCC's regulatory authority. Ironically, AT&T probably has a case that the fees need to be adjusted, but that has nothing to do with consumers. All entrepreneurs start by finding a new way to make money, and unless it is patently illegal, the courts and legislature eventually negotiate appropriate new guidelines.

      But your post highlights the point I tried to make upthread: when an executive editor at ZDNet is lazy about using words like "rip-off" and "kickback" he sets a biased framework for discussion and, in this case, simply passes along AT&T's public relations campaign, i.e. one side of the story.

      And he is either ignoring his editorial duty to the public or has an agenda.
      Todd Johnston
      • You're missing the BIGGER picture

        which I alluded to....termination fees (or call termination in general), the FCC regulations spoken of here, etc... the entire business is filled with stuff that won't exist at some point. As more and more people originate their calls over IP, then what? Do the toll booths get reconfigured and relocated to extract dollars out of a connection that should have no cost associated with it in the first place?
        dberlind