Disturbing abuse of the troops and those who care for them by AT&T and others

Today I was pointed to this advertisement asking you to buy prepaid phone cards for the troops.

AT&T has set up special phone stations near all major deployments in the Mid-East. Phone access for our troops is easy, but calls home remain expensive.

So you can pay AT&T $18 to give a phone card to a soldier to call home with at 22.5 cents/minute, or 57 cents/minute from their mobile. Here are the rates.

Except there is one problem. Phone calls aren’t expensive any more. Not to the USA. Not for a company like AT&T. They are by and large free, well under half a cent per minute from any IP phone or phone company phone, plus the bandwidth out of the location. (I’ll get to that.)

Now in some countries there are monopoly rules that would stop a company from installing a phone on their own network and letting people call out from it cheap. But are these going to apply on a U.S. military base in Iraq or Afghanistan? I doubt it, but let me know if somehow they do. It would be odd, the bases do not seem to be subject to any other local laws.

So what it seems is that AT&T is taking something that costs them about 30 cents to provide, and telling you to pay them $18 to give it to a solider.

As some of you will know, I put up a phone booth at Burning Man and let the whole city call home, anywhere in the world. The calls cost me peanuts, less than what you have in your wallet. The satellite bandwidth for the first year was donated by John Gilmore, but his monthly cost on that megabit satellite service was less than it cost AT&T to do graphic design on their calling cards. Later we used shared internet bandwidth done over a series of microwave towers.

So that’s the unanswered question. Is there something making data bandwidth so expensive to these bases that phone calls (which use as little as 20 kilobits) can use enough to be noticed and cost money? I know infrastructure in these countries is poor and expensive, but are there no data pipes into the bases? Why doesn’t the military allocate a tiny fraction of that data stream and let soldiers call home free? Stories say soldiers have the bandwidth and are using Skype and other VoIP calls to call home for free (often with video!) so what’s going on? At the most remote bases, where connections only come by satellite, I can see a few more limitations, but you can do cheap, if high-latency voice calls just fine from geostationary satellites.

From my own phone here I can call Baghdad for 3 cents per minute, and cell phones from 7 to 11 cents/minute. Afghanistan (regular or cellular) is indeed 22 cents/minute, presumably due to standard monopoly phone tariffs that military bases should be exempt from.

This is shameful.

Thank you for bringing up this topic

My son is currently a Marine recruit and we have been shocked at what we've found out as far as costs for phoning home when his training is finished and he is inevitably deployed. We were naive enough to think we could send him off with a pre-paid phone, but we've been told those phones don't work overseas by numerous providers and that the US government is having "trouble" negotiating reasonable costs for troops to call home via lines like the ones you say have been set up by AT&T. Apparently all we can do is send phone cards. It is very disappointing to us and to him.

I'm wondering if security measures that the government may require of providers contributes to the additional costs? Soldiers and families are required to follow OPSEC when speaking with one another, but I'm sure there would still need to be additional security on a phone line - but I don't know the scope of those measures and how much additional cost that would bring into the picture.

Having security

It is not that hard to put in good security. Skype has more than adequate security, though Skype’s own server operators could in theory interfere with their key system, that would be a risky move on their part. Skype was not originally a U.S. company but now it is.

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