Tech

Here’s Why A Small Website Is Accusing AT&T Of Purposely Blocking Conference Calls Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

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Chris White Tech Reporter
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A company that provides conference call services online is taking drastic measures against AT&T for supposedly blocking customers from making conference calls amid the coronavirus pandemic.

FreeConferenceCall.com filed a complaint March 13 with the Federal Communications Commission alleging the telecommunications giant is purposely throttling conference calls. The Daily Caller News Foundation obtained a copy of the complaint as well as memos documenting the fight.

“AT&T is blocking calls,” Lauren Coppola, an attorney with Robins Kaplan LLP, wrote in the complaint to the FCC’s Market Disputes Resolution Division. Coppola’s firm represents FreeConferenceCall.com founder and CEO David Erickson’s website in the matter.

“Throughout the advent of modern telecommunications, the Commission has held that call blocking runs afoul of section 201(a) of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996,” Coppola added. FreeConferenceCall.com’s argument hinges on an obscure FCC ruling regarding rural phone operators.

FreeConferenceCall.com began generating revenue for the first time in 2005 when it entered into profit-sharing agreements with local exchange carriers (or LECs) in rural areas. LECs were permitted to charge AT&T and other phone carriers to connect calls to conference call numbers.

AT&T admitted to the FCC that it blocks some connections with a company called Wide Voice, which provides teleconferencing services to customers across the globe. AT&T argues it blocks WideVoice because the website relies on phone companies that artificially pumps up traffic.

“AT&T currently sees some, but minimal, call blocking at its direct connects and will continue its expedited work with Wide Voice to augment those connections,” in a March 6 letter executives from AT&T, Verizon Wireless and other telecommunications companies sent to the FCC.

Partial lockdown as part of a 15-day state of emergency to combat the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Barcelona

A member of the Military Emergency Unit (UME) disinfects the Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport REUTERS/Nacho Doce

The FCC declined to comment while AT&T directed the DCNF to a January court order reprimanding FreeConferenceCall.com for not complying with a rule the agency crafted in 2019 to ending a scheme allowing rural phone companies to work with free conference calling services to increase caller volume.

Such a move allows rural companies to collect access charges from long distance phone carriers, effectively costing American consumers an estimated $60 million to $80 million annually, according to a statement FCC published in September 2019 addressing the rule change.

“One access arbitrage scheme has resulted in twice as many minutes of calls per month being routed to Redfield, South Dakota, population 2,300, as is routed to all of Verizon’s facilities in New York City, population 8.5 million,” the FCC noted. The abnormally high volume can lead to blocked or dropped calls , the agency noted.

FreeConferenceCall.com, Zoom, and other companies that provide conference services have a lot to fight over as people who are social distancing due to the coronavirus seek ways of working virtually. (RELATED: Trump And Big Tech Put Their Differences Aside, Brainstorm Ways Google, Facebook Can Confront Coronavirus)

“We feel the complaint speaks for itself. Call blocking is never justified and AT&T should not be blocking calls,” Erickson said in a statement to the DCNF, adding: “There is never any justification for blocking calls.”

The website is seeing a surge in business, with account creations increasing 42% in the United Kingdom, 3,442% in Italy, and 393% in Japan, according to a March 12 press statement FreeConferenceCall.com published via PR Newswire. Universities are following suit as well.

University of Notre Dame, Villanova University, University of Minnesota, the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY) are among the latest colleges are cancelling in-person classes and switching to virtual instructions. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Cornell, and Princeton have also canceled classes or closed outright.

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