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What's the catch with Futurephone?
by Michael Gartenberg, October 10, 2006, 10:15 AM

Have you tried this yet? According to the Futurephone site you can make free calls overseas for at least the next three years, no skype or other PC based software needed. All you need to do is call an access # at 712-858-8883 (somewhere in Iowa it seems). I tried it, it works. If there's a catch here, I can't find it.


Free Overseas Phone Calls
by David Pogue NY Times, October 9, 2006, 11:48 am

I had a great weekend. At a banquet/awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., my blogs and videos won the Online Commentary (Large Institution) award from the Online News Association. Thanks, dudes!

So I'm feeling generous. How would you like to make all the overseas phone calls you want for free?

And not using Skype or some other sit-at-your-computer geekiness, either. I'm talking about picking up your phone and dialing an international phone number for free.

Incredibly, that's exactly what a company called Futurephone is offering. There's no contract, fees, taxes, signup, registration or calling cards; you don't even give them your name or e-mail address. You just pick up the phone-home phone, office phone, cellphone-and make a free call to Argentina, Australia, China, England, France, Iceland, Israel, Mexico, Venezuela or any of 40 other countries.

The possible catch: you reach Futurephone's international dial tone by calling a number in Iowa, which is a domestic call that you have to pay for.

Of course, for a lot of people, that's still free. Use your cellphone on a night or weekend, for example. Or sign up for a flat-rate unlimited calling plan at home. Or see if your office has an unlimited long-distance plan.

So here's how it works: Call 712-858-8883.

At the prompt, press 1 for English. Then punch in 011, the country code and the phone number. That's it. The call rings through immediately.

Truth is, I don't know what Futurephone's game is here. They say they're giving away the calls in order to "build up the company's brand-name recognition. Our plan is to offer additional services in the future." And they promise that this freebie will be in place for at least three years, through 2010.

I tested out this service, and it's exactly what it promises to be: free overseas phone calls. I chatted casually with my friend Guillaume in France and Albert in Spain (whom longtime Pogue's Posts readers will remember as my Barcelona tour guide this summer).

The one disappointment: I couldn't seem to reach cellphone numbers. The company says that it's still working out agreements with the cell carriers in some countries.

Otherwise, the sound quality was about the same as any overseas call. The only difference: it was all free.


Free International Calls! Just Dial ... Iowa
By Ned Potter ABC News, Oct. 13, 2006

The first question most people seem to ask when they hear about Futurephone.com is: What's the catch?

It turns out there really isn't much of one. Eventually — though not yet — you'll have to listen to a short commercial before your call goes through.

Futurephone, a California startup company, has, for the last three weeks, been offering you the chance to call a number in Iowa, then enter a number you're trying to reach in any of 50 other countries, and — bingo — you're on the phone to Shanghai. Or Warsaw. Or Christmas Island.

Hello? Hello?

We tried it, and it works. You call 712-858-8883, and a recorded voice answers, inviting you to hear brief instructions in English, Spanish or Chinese. Then you dial 011, the country code (51 for Peru, for instance, or 359 for Bulgaria) and the local number. If someone is there and awake to answer at the other end, you can talk to the other side of the planet — for whatever it cost you to make a call to Iowa.

"The cost of a call has gone down so dramatically," says Tom Doolin, a principal in Futurephone. The firm, which has about 30 employees to start, uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to route the calls for next to nothing. The consumer does not need new software or telephone hookups. Futurephone has made deals with telecom operations in the countries where calls can "terminate."

Technically, the call the consumer makes is not entirely free; one does have to have domestic long-distance service. But millions of Americans pay monthly fees that allow them unlimited long-distance calls.

Where, by the way, are you calling when you reach 712-858-8883? It turns out to be an exchange in Superior, Iowa, a town of 142 people on the Iowa-Minnesota border. But Doolin says that's simply a number his firm was able to use to route calls inexpensively.

The next obvious question is how the company hopes to make money without charging anything, and the answer is simple. Like many other Internet-based firms, they plan to work on an advertising model.

"It's free, and people like free. They'll listen to a 10-second commercial if they can make a free call," Doolin says. "In the middle of next year you might see something like that."

Disruptive Technologies

"I certainly think most people are willing to make those types of tradeoffs," says Michael Gartenberg, a technology analyst at New York-based Jupiter Research.

Gartenberg has often commented on the threat conventional phone companies, among many others, face if they do not respond to new technology.

"We're really entering into a whole new era of very disruptive business models," he says.

Gartenberg says he received an e-mail about Futurephone, gave it a try, and posted a brief mention on his blog.

Word is spreading — quickly enough that Doolin's computer programmers are worried their nascent system will crash if there's too much traffic. In the meantime, though, they hope to build a "captive audience" of people who like the service, and won't mind when ads start to pop up.

Any surprises so far?

Yes, says Doolin, though it's still too early to plot meaningful trends. He expected people to call China and Mexico; instead, there have been a surprising number of calls to Canada, which is not that expensive to begin with.

The one threat to Futurephone's business plan is that the cost of long distance communication is dropping so quickly. A quarter of a century ago the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke ("2001: A Space Odyssey" and other books) predicted that by now, long distance would be free.

Michael Gartenberg laughed. "We're certainly getting very, very close to that."


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