Last updateFri, 11 Mar 2016 6pm

VoIP’s dirty little secrets: ‘Call anywhere in the USA’ – Really?

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is to many expatriates in Mexico the most important use to which they put their internet access. Gone are the days when it was necessary for some of us to spend large amounts of money on long-distance telephone tariffs, and thank goodness!  

Twenty years ago, if I visited Mexico on a two-week vacation, the requirements for keeping in touch with business back in the states sometimes resulted in my running up long-distance charges into the hundreds of dollars.  Today there are other alternatives, thanks to the internet.

There are many VoIP options of varying price and quality.  Recently I was called on to troubleshoot a problem a client was having with one of the inexpensive VoIP systems.  It took me only the first minute to determine that this person’s equipment was working just fine because I could make a test call to a fellow professional in the States to whom I speak on a regular basis.  The problem my client was experiencing presented itself when she tried to call someone else.  Naturally she wanted to know why her phone worked for me but not when I handed it to her, and I wanted to know the answer to that one myself.  Eventually my investigations seeking the answer to her question revealed a dirty little secret I had never previously known about VoIP.

Some VoIP providers advertise “Call anywhere in the USA” but I learned that this is a fraud, misleading advertising and technically could be a violation of U.S. law.  The truth is that with some VoIP services you can call almost anywhere in the United States, but not everywhere.

Under the provisions of the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996, big carriers such as AT&T are required to pay access fees to the smaller local phone companies when they connect calls to those systems.  These rural carriers are allowed by law to charge substantially higher rates (up to 20 cents a minute) based on the rationale that it costs them more to serve rural customers.  Exploiting this, some unscrupulous U.S. rural telephone companies have engaged in a practice called “traffic pumping” in order to generate a large call volume for which they are paid by the minute.  There are many ways of doing this, one of which is for the small rural phone company to host a high-volume phone-sex service.

The person placing a phone call does not pay the extra fee, but AT&T or Google or MagicJack or Skype or Vonage does.  These payments run into the millions of dollars a year going to small rural telephone companies, so naturally AT&T and the other big carriers are looking to minimize their losses to this legal scam.

So here is the dirty little secret:  VoIP providers feel they cannot afford to pay the legally-required extra fees to the rural phone providers, so they have quietly blocked all calls to many telephone exchanges.  The result is that if you try to use VoIP to phone somebody in French Lick, Indiana or any customer of Paul Bunyan Rural Telephone Cooperative in Puposky, Minnesota, that call may never go through.

As is often the case, it is the innocent who suffer. Using VoIP,  my client is unable to call anyone in her hometown in rural North Dakota.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant with more than 20 years IT experience and a Texan with a lifetime love for Mexico.  The opinions expressed are his own.  He may be contacted through his web site at SMAguru.com.

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