Kiss long distance goodbye

A little audio ‘spam’, marketing and the Internet are being combined to make free cross-Canada calling a reality within a year, Vito Pilieci writes.

An Ontario businessman says it won’t be long before most Canadians can telephone each other as often and as long as they like — without paying long-distance charges.

John_2003John Stix expects advertisers to foot the bill.

Mr. Stix, co-founder of Total Free Call Inc. of Waterloo, has devised a system in which long-distance callers willing to listen to a 15-second commercial can make free, unlimited long-distance calls.

The service is already running in Ottawa and parts of the Valley, and — if all goes according to plan — the majority of Canadians could have access to free long-distance by this time next year.

“We wanted to create a hassle-free service,” Mr. Stix said. “There are no limits and you can call from any phone.”

The Ottawa service, available at 688-FREE, dodges the quirky telephone barriers that separate municipalities in the valley.

For example, a call between Jockvale and Osgoode is considered long-distance, although both communities can call Ottawa locally. But a Jockvale caller who dials Total Free’s Ottawa number and listens to an advertisement can connect to Osgoode via the Ottawa link.

The Total Free network stretches as far north as Val-des-Bois in Quebec, as far south as Smiths Falls,east to St. Isidore de Prescott and west as Shawville.

Mr. Stix, and his business partner, Jody Schnarr, started Total Free Call Inc. on Sept 1. A similar network is now being activated in Toronto.

The two businessmen are not new to cutting long-distance bills: they co-founded Onlinetel Corp. in Kitchener, which has been offering free long-distance within Ontario on behalf of beer giant Labatt Breweries for more than a year.

Mr. Stix says Total Free Call is setting up networks in other major cities across Canada, including Montreal, Quebec City, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Halifax and Winnipeg.

Once these networks are established, he can use the Internet to link them and bring free cross-country calling to more than 76 per cent of Canada’s population, he said.

Lawrence Surtees, director of telecommunications and Internet-related research for IDC Canada, said the ad-driven business model has been successful in the United States and that it’s about time someone in Canada rolled out this type of system.

“It has been running for years and years in the U.S.,” Mr. Surtees said. “Calls are already next to nothing.

“The only way you could make a go of this today is pretty much by doing what they are doing.”

Mr. Surtees said that after long-distance markets were opened up to competition in 1992, long-distance rates plunged.

Today, discount telephone phone companies such as Yak Communications Inc. can buy a block of time wholesale from telephone companies, sell it for less than three cents a minute, and still make a profit.

Mr. Surtees said Total Free Call works in a similar fashion, except that the company passes the costs of the time to the advertiser instead of the consumer.

Bell Canada welcomed the idea, saying that Canadians already enjoy some of the lowest long-distance telephone rates in the world and a service such as Total Free Call simply offers consumers more alternatives when placing a call.

“This is just a testament to the growing and intense competition that is going on in the long-distance market,” Bell spokesman Andrew Cole said. “That has been the case for a number of years and will be the case in the years to come.”

© Copyright  2003 The Ottawa Citizen