Friday, March 10, 2006

Ripoff or Reasonable?

Tom Evslin is irate that AT&T is charging soldiers 21 cents a minute for calling card calls from Iraq to the US, and doesn't permit access to other phone card providers' access numbers. Jack Decker is even irater.

According to the article in the Prepaid Press that Tom cites, AT&T charges 21 cents per minute for calls from Iraq. This price, the meme goes, is outrageous.
You can buy prepaid cards almost anywhere in the world to call the US for less than two cents a minute.
Also outrageous, the meme goes, is that the soldiers are denied the chance to use a less-expensive calling card.
But when a company appears to be abusing their monopoly position to pick the pockets of people who have no other choices, I get upset.
Disclaimer: I, like Tom, used to work for AT&T. I wasn't anywhere near Carpetland. I did go there for a meeting. Once. They didn't invite me back. But one boss of mine was in the same part of the building as some of the Labs folks who were responsible for establishing the calling centers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they were rather proud of what they had done - there aren't many places in the Labs where people hang pictures of their projects on their doors, but that was one of them. So I got curious. Is AT&T taking unfair advantage of their position in Iraq to gouge the soldiers?

I went looking for the international prepaid calling cards that allow you to call the US from Iraq for less than two cents a minute. Perhaps AT&T's biggest LD rival, MCI (now Verizon Business), would have a better rate. Doing some searching, I found three MCI international prepaid cards that show rates from Iraq to the US (Not sure all the deeplinks will work):

Branded as MCI ConnectHome: 45 cents per minute
Branded as AbsoluteGlobal, sold through ZapTel: 45 cents per minute
Branded as MCI World Traveler Phone Card: 56.3 cents per minute

Hmm. Maybe the other of the Big Three, Sprint: Nope. Not available.

OK, obviously the Big Three are all thinking the same way. But the Prepaid industry is ultra-competitive, and there are a lot of small companies that have extremely low prepaid card rates. So let's look on Google for "international calling card" and see what we can find:

WorldTraveler Card (PhoneCardSavers): 56.25 cents per minute - good to see that it's the same rate that MCI /VZB uses. Although Calling Card Plus has the same card with a rate of 45 cents per minute. Not available No cards available for service from Iraq. Not available

There were a number of sites that had rates for PC to phone or callback cards, but I was unable to find any calling cards with rates from Iraq to the US that were less than 45 cents per minute - more than twice what AT&T is charging.

Other than anecdotal evidence, is anyone able to document phone-to-phone calling cards with a rate for calls from Iraq to the Continental US less than what AT&T is charging?

Would it be preferable for AT&T to allow callers to use other companies' calling cards? Sure. Would it help the soldiers? Doesn't look like it.