Dave Erickson is finding it difficult to make it to meetings on time. When he dials into the conference call service that his company uses, he often gets a busy signal on his first try. He may have to dial 10 times before he gets through. It’s frustrating, he says—especially since he’s the founder and CEO of the company that operates the service, known as FreeConferenceCall.com.
Erickson blames AT&T, his wireless provider and a company that has been in a months-long dispute with FreeConferenceCall.com over the conferencing service’s controversial business practices. The result is that some AT&T customers in the United States, including Erickson, can no longer easily access it.
As more people work from home during the coronavirus pandemic, demand has surged for conferencing services including Zoom, WebEx, and Google Hangouts. FreeConferenceCall.com bills itself as a free option that provides the same features as many paid services, including audio and video conferencing, screen sharing, and call recording. The service hosts more than 20 million participants on calls each month and can support calls with up to 1,000 participants at a time.
Lately, FreeConferenceCall.com’s operations have come under scrutiny. Last September, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a new order to eliminate a practice known as access stimulation, or traffic pumping—calling it a “wasteful scheme” in a press release. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai targeted services such as FreeConferenceCall.com in a statement [PDF] issued with the order, saying:
“You’ve probably heard the expression ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ As it turns out, there’s also no such thing as a free conference call. Instead, we all end up footing the bill for these purportedly ‘free’ calls.”
The crux of the issue has to do with how calls were being routed across the public switched telephone network, says Mike Saperstein, vice president for law and policy at the industry organization U.S. Telcom. Historically, long-distance carriers such as AT&T would pay access fees for local carriers to complete calls to people in that carrier’s service area. The FCC eliminated most such fees in a series of orders beginning in 2007, preferring to instead support local carriers through programs such as the Universal Service Fund.
With the latest order, the FCC also eliminated fees that companies such as AT&T paid to tandem switch providers that connect large telcos with many smaller local carriers. Those fees were originally meant to cover the costs of transporting calls from a tandem switch in a town or city to each local carrier in an area.
According to the FCC, businesses that offer “free” conferencing took advantage of this arrangement by directing large numbers of calls to tandem providers that they either owned or agreed to share revenue with. The FCC describes one such scheme in which twice as many call minutes per month were routed to Redfield, South Dakota (population: 2,300) as were routed to all Verizon facilities in New York City (population: 8.5 million).
Those fees were in turn passed on to customers of companies like AT&T, even if only a very small portion actually used the “free” conferencing service. The FCC estimated [PDF] that before its order, such schemes indirectly cost U.S. consumers $60 to $80 million per year.
With the FCC’s order, local carriers are now required to pay fees if they have a high ratio of incoming to outgoing calls. This upends the model for so-called “free” conferencing, because local carriers no longer have an incentive to welcome such companies.
Erickson says FreeConferenceCall.com will comply with the FCC’s order but must find new providers and locations for its service, since some companies it worked with in the past no longer want the large volumes of incoming traffic that his business generates. “The order put traffic on the move,” he says.
In January, his firm filed for a waiver [PDF] from the FCC, stating: “Without the requested waiver, Free Conferencing will suffer immediate and irreparable harm.” The company warned “millions of calls will fail” if it is not granted a waiver.
And, the company claims, carriers such as AT&T are “ignoring additional routes and switches” that could be used to complete calls to its service, thereby causing those calls to drop. In its waiver request, FreeConferenceCall.com accuses such carriers of “intentionally refusing to function by the rules and routing guides governing the public switched telephone network.”
Also in January, AT&T sent a letter to a firm called Wide Voice, which works closely with FreeConferenceCall.com (which provided the letter to IEEE Spectrum). In the letter, AT&T said it will not route traffic to new tandem switches that Wide Voice is setting up in Rudd, Iowa or South Dakota and blamed any call completion issues on Wide Voice.
“What’s happening is that AT&T doesn’t want to give us enough capacity for the amount of callers they have calling us,” Erickson says. “AT&T is clearly playing a game and they’ve stated it in writing that they’re shutting down routes. How could that be good?”
The FCC said on 27 March that it would not issue a waiver for FreeConferenceCall.com, but did grant one [PDF] to Inteliquent, a tandem switch provider used by Zoom and Cisco’s WebEx. Without it, the FCC said, the high volume of incoming calls that these services were receiving during the coronavirus pandemic would have surely exceeded the agency’s ratio and triggered additional fees.
A chart provided by FreeConferenceCall.com shows high incompletion rates for test calls that the company says it placed to the service in March via AT&T’s network.
Erickson says his service is also experiencing high call volumes as a result of the pandemic. But the FCC explicitly denied [PDF] a request by FreeConferenceCall.com to extend that waiver to all conferencing services and said the agency would “remain vigilant to ensure that unscrupulous providers do not attempt to take advantage of this national emergency to avoid obligations the Commission’s rules place on their business practices.”
Margaret Boles, an AT&T spokeswoman, told IEEE Spectrum: “We have offered and continue to make available solutions, consistent with FCC rules, to address this traffic congestion, but Free Conferencing/Wide Voice has declined those offers because they limit its ability to earn unwarranted windfalls at consumer expense in violation of FCC rules. We are especially disappointed that Free Conferencing is seeking to exploit the nation’s health crisis at the expense of its own customers and legitimate conference calling companies in its effort to seek support for its unlawful actions.”
Saperstein says U.S. Telecom is supportive of the FCC’s efforts to eliminate access stimulation. “I’m aware of a number of entities that have taken advantage of these arrangements have been moving their traffic around to try to continue to receive payments, and that has caused disputes.”
Jon Peha, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and former chief technologist of the FCC, adds: “It makes sense that the FCC continues to close certain loopholes. I think the FCC may need to reconsider whether one wants to do that in the middle of a pandemic that’s forcing people to work from home.”