Can A Phone Service Provider Block Calls To Numbers It Doesn't Like?
from the that-seems-like-an-fcc-violation dept
About four years ago, I signed up for AT&T CallVantage VoIP service and ditched my traditional POTS landline phone service. This was back when AT&T was actually betting on CallVantage and using it as a (many reviews claimed) better alternative to Vonage. Then, of course, SBC bought AT&T and wanted nothing whatsoever to do with CallVantage. It neglected the service, and quality got worse and worse until it announced a few months ago that it was shutting the service down completely. Fair enough. I contemplated going strictly with a combination of Skype and my cell phone for phone service, but I’ve found both to be somewhat unreliable at times — and for unexplained reasons my new laptop has terrible microphone inputs — so everyone I’ve called via Skype insists they can’t hear me at all (and I’ve tried both USB and the mic inputs, and multiple microphones — no luck).
So, after hearing about some friends who were using it and doing some online research, I decided to try “MagicJack.” You may have seen their late night commercials that are hard to avoid (even if you use a DVR). It’s basically a much cheaper VoIP option that’s not that unlike Vonage/CallVantage, except that instead of getting a VoIP router to hook up to your broadband modem directly, it’s just a USB dongle that connects directly to your computer. I read some reviews online, and they all basically said the same thing: when it works, it works great, but don’t expect any customer support if things go wrong. And, oh yes, hold your nose at the infomercial sales process and the constant upsell attempts. Still, I figured it was worth a shot and ordered a free trial (you have 30 days). Of course, to get through the process, you have to decline something like 30 upsell attempts (my favorite: $4 to have them ship it faster — I declined and the thing still showed up in two days).
I’ve been using it for about a week, and it’s not too bad. There are some annoyances, but the call quality works fine. I think there’s a slight delay, which gives calls that old long distance pause between people speaking that used to be common, but I can live with that. The actual call quality seems better than my old CallVantage.
But today, MagicJack appears to be breaking the law. Every Friday we have a staff call at Floor64. Since not everyone here works locally or in the office every day, we have a conference call using every startup’s favorite: FreeConference.com. So I called in this morning, and MagicJack refused. Instead, it gave me a recording telling me that I needed to use MagicJack’s own free conferencing solution. That might be fine for setting up conference calls, but this was a call that was already going on, and which people were waiting for me to dial into. And there was no way to get around it. MagicJack simply refuses to let you call FreeConference.com.
Now, it’s not hard to figure out why. This issue cropped up two years ago, when a bunch of small telcos started blocking calls to FreeConference.com, because FreeConference is actually a big regulatory arbitrage scam. MagicJack itself is a CLEC that most likely benefits from some kind of regulatory arbitrage, so it’s just another small telco blocking FreeConference to push its own services. But, just because telcos don’t like competition, it doesn’t mean it’s legal for them to block others’ services. After widespread complaints in 2007, most telcos backed down and stopped blocking calls to FreeConference, and the FCC started looking into the matter — though I don’t believe it ever came out with a ruling on the matter. I’m pretty sure there are still a smattering of lawsuits out there about the whole thing.
But, considering how many conference call invites I get these days that use FreeConference, it’s quite a pain to find out that my own phone line can’t dial into it. Other MagicJack users have been discovering the same thing, and MagicJack’s customer service response has been hopelessly inept. They just keep repeating that you need to use their own free conferencing service, and if you finally find someone who understands that you’re trying to call into someone else’s conference they just say sorry, you can’t do that.
In the past, of course, the FCC has indicated that it’s a violation of federal rules to disallow phone calls to get through just because you don’t like the numbers being dialed, and it seems that when you promise people free unlimited local and long distance phone calls throughout the US, then you need to live up to that promise. I’m not sure if I’m going to keep the MagicJack after this trial period, but this is a huge strike against it. Who knows what other numbers they might not let me call next week?