A legal fight involving two Southern California companies and AT&T Inc. is exposing an ominous reality: Phone companies say they can decide whom their customers can’t call.
The Kidney Cancer Assn., a small charity watching its nickels and dimes, found that out the hard way. The nonprofit had been using a free, Web-based conference-calling service from a Long Beach company to connect patients with medical experts.
But last month, the charity’s cellphone provider, Cingular, began blocking calls to the system run by FreeConferenceCall.com. The same thing happened to Richard Rezabek, a software consultant, when he tried to conduct free conference calls with his U.S. Navy clients.
“For two days, I had to pay to arrange long-distance calls, paying 30 to 40 cents a minute for each caller,” said Rezabek, of Mexico, Mo. “I couldn’t charge my customers — I had to swallow that cost.”
Swallowing the cost is exactly what Cingular parent AT&T, Sprint Nextel Corp. and Qwest Communications International Inc. are saying they’re forced to do when they pay the high fees smaller phone carriers charge on the back end to connect callers. The conferences may be free to the consumer, but they’re costing long-distance carriers millions of dollars.