AT&T Battles Free Conferencing Over Access Stimulation

February 6, 2020 | by Andrew Regitsky

AT&T Battles Free Conferencing Over Access Stimulation

On September 27, 2019, the FCC decided it was time to end access stimulation once and for all. In an Order in Docket 18-155, the Commission adopted rules to eliminate the flaws in the switched access system that forced all switched access customers to subsidize “free” high-volume calling services that generated millions in revenues for access stimulators. Beginning this year, access stimulating LECs, rather than IXCs, must now bear the financial responsibility for the tariffed tandem switching and transport charges associated with the delivery of traffic from an IXC to the access stimulating LEC’s end office or its functional equivalent.

Some access stimulators realized the game was up and informed the FCC and impacted IXCs and intermediate carriers that they now were going to play by the rules. For example, on January 9, 2020, Omnitel Communications wrote:

OmniTel is filing this notice to document the termination of its participation in access stimulation as defined under the Commission’s prior rules and the new rules contained in the Report and Order...Effective as of October 29, 2019, OmniTel’s end user relationships with high volume calling providers were terminated. Since that time, the company has worked diligently to transition stimulated traffic off of its network and to otherwise comply with the Commission’s rules concerning exit from access stimulation arrangements. (OmniTel Communications, January 9, 2020, letter to FCC, Docket 18-155).

Sadly, certain access stimulators continue their battle. Some unsuccessfully filed for an emergency stay of the Order. Aureon filed a Petition for Reconsideration, which will almost certainly be rejected by the Commission. Free Conferencing, however, is putting up the most concerted fight. On January 7, 2010, it filed a Petition for Expedited Waiver of the access stimulation rules.

Free Conferencing alleges that it would suffer immediate and irreparable harm if the waiver is not granted. Specifically, it claims that it needs more time to transition to the new rules, and despite its best efforts, its calls are being blocked by IXCs.
Free Conferencing, working with a variety of connection partners, has made arrangements to transition its traffic away from carriers that are either no longer engaging in the "access stimulation" business or would not have balanced traffic ratios such that they would comply with the Order. In so doing, various carriers and connection partners have taken steps to accept Free Conferencing's traffic. IXCs are making Free Conferencing's transition impossible in two ways. First, several IXCs are ignoring additional routes, and switches in the LERG. Certain LERG changes were made with the proper notices by carriers many weeks ago. Despite proper notice, IXCs are intentionally refusing to function by the rules and routing guides governing the public switched telephone network. Their failures to route under the LERG designations are causing calls to fail and inhibiting Free Conferencing's transition to new providers...

Second, in instances where IXCs are acknowledging the new codes properly added to the LERG, IXCs are not provisioning additional capacity required to handle the transition... [C]ounsel contacted IXCs' counsel to ensure that all steps are taken to ensure proper capacity is provisioned such that calls are not blocked. All requests for such assurances have been ignored and calls are starting to fail. At the same time, CLECs have terminated relationships with Free Conferencing in advance of this week's deadline to comply with the Order, leaving Free Conferencing with no ability to conduct its business. Free Conferencing is thus left with no choice but to seek this waiver. (Free Conferencing Petition, at pp. 4-5).

On January 15, 2020, AT&T filed an Opposition to the waiver request in which it noted that any harm Free Conferencing is facing is of its own making. The IXC stated:

Although it relies on telephone numbers provided by its local carrier partners, Free Conferencing effectively controls the flow of traffic to its conferencing facilities. [Free Conferencing]—not the Commission, AT&T, or other long-distance carriers—caused that call congestion by abruptly seeking to reroute millions of minutes of access stimulation calls to locations they knew lacked sufficient capacity to handle that traffic...[Free Conferencing] apparently believes[s] however, that creating congestion in this way gives them leverage to extract arrangements with long-distance carriers so they can continue to collect inflated revenues and thereby maintain their existing arbitrage scheme.

Contrary to [Free Conferencing’s] claims, nothing in the Commission’s Order required them to re-route large volumes of traffic at the last minute. [Free Conferencing] could have instead undertaken “a number” of alternative approaches in response to the Commission’s regulatory reforms. For example, they could have reduced the number of access-stimulated minutes, charged their end users, or adopted an advertising-based revenue model. Or [Free Conferencing] could have “self-provision[ed]” by paying for transport facilities capable of carrying the enormous volumes of calls that they voluntarily chose to re-arrange at the eleventh hour. [Free Conferencing] chose disruption—and then cited that disruption as a basis for yet further delays in regulatory reform. (AT&T Opposition to Free Conferencing Expediated Petition for Waiver, filed January 15, 2020, at pp. 2-3.).

The Commission should reject Free Conferencing’s Petition. The company has had fair warning a crackdown on access stimulation was coming. Its failure to prepare for the rule changes should not be rewarded with a continuation of revenues subsidized by an illegal scheme.