There is an interesting bit of news from Consumer Affairs this week that should sound eerily familiar to anyone concerned about net neutrality. AT&T, Sprint, Cingular, and Qwest have begun blocking subscribers’ access to FreeConference.com, a web-based service that offers conference calls for the price of a single long distance call.
Apparently, the telecoms weren’t happy about the success of FreeConference, which according to the article, has become quite popular with a number of small businesses and non-profits. AT&T officials also claimed FreeConference violated the terms of its service, saying multiple people were never intended to be connected via a single phone call. Qwest has gone a step further and sued FreeConference and another similar service claiming they have cost the telecom $10 to $15 million by exploiting a loophole in telecommunications law. (The reasons are too complicated to explain here, but see the article in Consumer Affairs).
Naturally, FreeConference said AT&T is simply trying to steer customers back to its conference calling service. Consumer groups have cried foul over the move saying it limits people’s choices to legitimate businesses.
With mobile phones becoming a more and more popular choice for music downloads, it will be interesting to see if mobile providers follow suit and consider blocking downloads from certain music providers that they are not aligned with.
The affair also underscores the power of telecoms and why net neutrality is so important. If the big telecoms are willing to interfere in phone service, why not Internet service as well? Of course, AT&T has signed a two-year commitment to net neutrality to gain approval of its merger with BellSouth, but some believe that might not apply to all of its offerings such as TV over the Internet.