Technology has been lauded as the great equalizer of the financial markets, giving investors around the globe access to information once available only to Wall Street insiders.

But technology, like democracy, has its kinks.

Exhibit A: the dial-in investor conference call. While many companies publish phone numbers for the public, others force members of the media and individual investors to tune in via the Internet. That's fair enough in theory, maybe, but with the audio quality of many Webcasts akin to a

Fisher-Price

walkie-talkie, investors may find themselves straining their ears for information.

On Tuesday morning's

Federated Department Stores

call, for example, only "invited guests" were cleared to listen by telephone. Others were directed to the company's Webcast.

Judging from the connection, Federated management was sharing a cell phone in the back of a van traveling back-and-forth through the Lincoln Tunnel. Twice, the Webcast went dead. The result: Many individual investors and reporters, who often act as the ears of small investors, missed parts of the call.

"It's just the way we do it," says Carol Sanger, a Federated spokeswoman, who adds that only analysts are given the dial-in number "because they are the ones that can ask questions." (She did say the company would make exceptions for interested reporters without access to the Internet. Now who might that be?)

In the spirit of

Regulation FD

-- the new securities rule that forces companies to simultaneously disclose material information to all investors, rather than simply whisper select pieces to a coterie of analysts -- companies have to work harder to make the quality of access, not merely the access itself, more equitable.

Of course, even the telephone isn't foolproof:

Nortel

CEO John Roth was recently bumped off his own earnings call. Now, isn't that what fair disclosure is all about?