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Insight Into Free Conference Call Services

Stranger-in-a-Strange-Land-bookcover In the novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” the legendary science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once wrote, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This came immediately to mind when I stumbled upon Fee Fighters where I found a post that was a nice explanation of how free conference calling services work.

The author quite rightly points out that Google Voice and Vonage will not place calls to the rural rate centers with the exorbitantly high termination costs that make the free conference service possible.

My preferred ITSP, OnSIP by Junction Networks, charges a uniform per-minute rate for calls to most rates centers in North America and Western Europe. However, when it comes to those rate centers in rural areas that host free conference services their plan changes. If we call such services they charge us “the true market rate” which can be up to 20x the normal rate. They made this abundantly clear back in 2009 when the policy was enacted.

We find no fault with OnSIP and their policy in this regard. In fact, we decided that we saw value in adding an optional private conference bridge to our OnSIP account, even though it costs us $20/month.

Our SIP phones scattered around the US and the UK can call the conference bridge for free since it’s a pure-IP call path. We only pay per-minute connect fees for callers connecting from the PSTN. With suitable hardware we even enjoy wideband conference calls.

When my need for conferencing goes beyond the OnSIP bridge I rely upon a managed conference bridge like David Frankel’s ZipDX.

As Heinlein’s observation implies, free conference calling services only appear to be free. Someone definitely gets paid, even if the cost is initially hidden.

The sheer number of such services in existence suggests that they get paid rather well. Since the telecom ecosystem is a closed loop we all bear the cost of the manner in which they exploit the rural rate centers.

There’s been a lot of chatter about reforming inter-carrier compensation. One aspect of such reform could eliminate the regulatory mechanisms that free conference services currently exploit. While that would, and has already caused huge arguments, I’m hopeful that in a post-PSTN world such anomalies would cease to exist.

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