No such thing as a free conference call

Most of the people I work with are located in the US, and so I spend a lot of time on conference calls. When we first started doing these, we searched Google for “free conference calls”, and finding many available options, we looked no further into paid services. These services typically offer free calls where you pay the long distance fees, and pay-per-minute services where you call a toll-free number. We assumed the free services were just advertising for the paid services, which is how the companies made their money. But apparently that isn’t the case at all.

We first started noticing problems when a few of us using relatively inexpensive phone cards for long distance calls kept having our calls dropped when calling access numbers for these services, despite not having problems calling any other numbers. Contacting customer support got us nowhere. We tried switching free conference services a few times, but the problems kept coming up. But today, while searching for yet another provider on Google, I got a hit for the Wikipedia article on traffic pumping, which explains a lot. When you make a long distance phone call, the local telephone company in the area you’re calling bills your long distance provider for the cost of completing the call (which they then recoup by billing you). Apparently, in the US, local telephone companies in rural areas are allowed to charge far higher rates than telcos in large cities, on the grounds that it costs them far more to service each phone line — fair enough, since how many people use AT&T to call Rock Valley, Iowa (population 2702)? Now that the internet allows free conference calling services based in Los Angeles to give out Rock Valley access numbers, the answer is quite a few. In return for the business, the rural telcos are of course happy to give a cut of the proceeds to the conference call operator. AT&T and their ilk pay for the “free” service, and cut-rate long distance providers like mine just quietly drop the calls on a semi-regular basis since they can’t afford the rates.

The really interesting part here is that Google Voice, a VoIP service offered in the US, also blocks access to these numbers. Google says it’s not a common carrier, and thus can refuse connect users whenever it feels like it. AT&T says that if Google is such a strong believer in network neutrality, it ought not to block access to any number. Both say the FCC needs to change the rules so that rural telcos only get to charge high access rates when connecting calls which actually terminate in their service areas, and the rural telcos and free conference providers say they’re simply running perfectly legal businesses in accordance with all applicable laws, which after all weren’t written by them.

There’s a legal battle going on now between the FCC, Google, and AT&T about all this, but a real resolution would require regulatory change — so a majority of politicians in Congress, including those who represent cash-strapped rural areas, would have to vote for it. Just like subsidies to corn-based ethanol, the rules make no sense, but might be here to stay.

sigh So, can anyone recommend a cheap conference calling option? We’ve tried Skype, but the audio quality is painfully bad. Really, we should set up Asterisk on one of our servers, but any ideas of what to use until we get around to that?