When FreeConferenceCall.com Is Not Free

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(This post originally appeared on Forbes)

One of my favorite services that I’ve been using for years is FreeConferenceCall.com. The service does what it says. It provides a place where individuals can make their own conference calls and host up to 100 people for 6 hours…completely free. Like many business owners, we’ve used it to help manage remote employees, independent contractors and customer projects. We like free stuff.

The company makes its money by routing non-toll-free calls through lesser-used exchanges around the country for a small fee provided by the exchange provider. That’s because most of us have national calling plans where the cost of the call is included. But the traffic is valuable for the exchange because they get a fraction of a cent from the carriers for every minute that an incoming call connects through them. The service has been reliable and extremely popular. In fact, since it started in 2001, the company claims 250 million annual users and more than 800,000 businesses who use the service. Nine billion minutes were logged through FreeConferenceCall.com last year, making it one of the top five conferencing services in the world. All through viral, word of mouth growth. And all free. Up until now.

“It’s time to change,” David Erickson, the company’s CEO told me recently. “We want to scale up. We have the ability to serve the largest companies in the world. And we want to go after some of that market.

Just last month, the company launched a new, paid service aimed at those larger businesses. And it won’t be free. The new service will offer secure and high-quality HD audio and video conference calls with 99.99% reliability, white-label corporate branding with a personalized audio greeting, hold music and messaging, and PBX integration. And something else that many of us using the free service aren’t used to: live 24/7 customer support and training

The company is betting that corporate users will want their own, hosted conferencing system that they can completely control, something that they claim their competitors (among them AT&T, InterCall and PGi as well as other disrupters likeUberConference and RingCentral ) don’t yet provide. And they’re also betting that companies will value these services enough to pay something for them. Most companies today are using toll-free conference calling systems and paying for those incoming calls. FreeConferenceCall.com wants them to switch to their service, use their existing calling plans to call its numbers (which aren’t toll free but would still be covered under their those national calling plans), and get a much better, flexible, customized interface…all at a lower cost than what’s already being paid. Assuming that your company pays $0.005 per minute and uses 500,000 per month, FreeConferenceCall’s prices cost about $6,000 less per year than its competitors, according to the company.

“It’s like GoDaddy and other website hosting services,” says Erickson. “It’s a way for companies to give thousands of their employees a conference bridge for each person with a cloud based system that’s completely under their control.” Erickson believes that the future for conferencing services is having a flexible, customized way to manage these calls on your choice of platforms. Local dial-ins. Thousands of numbers supported. A website shouldn’t change when it’s hosted by someone else, he feels. And neither should a conferencing service.

“We see a growing trend at enterprises to reconsider how they source and use conferencing services”, said Marc Beattie, Senior Analyst & Partner at Wainhouse Research, a research firm specializing in the communications industry. “This trend is being driven by new initiatives for unified communications, web conferencing, and free services.”

Now don’t panic, fellow lovers of FreeConferenceCall.com – the individualized service that you’re grown to love is still free and there are no plans to change that. But the landscape is changing for those mid-sized and larger companies who are looking for a better, more affordable alternative to their conferencing services. Even if it does cost something a little more than free.

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