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.