Update: AT&T Accuses Google of Violating Telecom Laws; Google Rejects Claims
AT&T asked the Federal Communications Commission Friday afternoon to look into Google's alleged blocking of some phone calls through its Google Voice service, a practice the phone giant called a violation of federal telecommunications laws.
Google Voice lets users connect all of their phone numbers to one common number and manage the calls and messages through a Web site. The application -- which links the Web with legacy telecommunications technology -- highlights the challenges faced by regulators whose rules for traditional landline phone networks and the Internet are often outdated or not clearly applicable to emerging technologies.
AT&T claims, based on news reports, that Google Voice is blocking some calls to rural areas to cut down on network access expenses. AT&T says the practice amounts to a violation of telecommunications laws that require phone operators to offer unrestricted access to phone calls anywhere in the United States. Some rural phone service carriers charge high fees to connect to their remote customers, but the FCC requires phone companies to pay those access fees anyway so all residents can have access to basic phone service.
"Google Voice has claimed for itself a significant advantage over providers offering competing services," Robert Quinn, AT&T's senior vice president for federal regulatory affairs, said in a statement about the letter. AT&T said that if the agency does not act on its letter, it will file a formal complaint.
Google disputed AT&T's claims, saying that it isn't a traditional phone service provider but a Web applications company that should not be subject to laws governing dial-up phone operators.
In a company blog, Google's telecom and media counsel, Rick Whitt, says the company's service "does restrict certain outbound calls from our Web platform" to areas that are expensive to connect to.
"But despite AT&T's efforts to blur the distinctions between Google Voice and traditional phone service, there are many significant differences:
"Unlike traditional carriers, Google Voice is a free, Web-based software application, and so not subject to common carrier laws.
"Google Voice is not intended to be a replacement for traditional phone service -- in fact, you need an existing land or wireless line in order to use it. Importantly, users are still able to make outbound calls on any other phone device. Google Voice is currently invitation-only, serving a limited number of users."
AT&T said in the letter that even if the FCC agreed with Google and defined Google Voice as a Internet service, the search giant's practices would be a breach of net-neutrality principles and could be a violation of broader net-neutrality rules proposed Monday by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
"By openly flouting the call blocking prohibition that applies to its competitors, Google is acting in a manner inconsistent with the spirit, if not the letter, of the FCC's fourth principle contained in its Internet Policy Statement," Quinn said. "Ironically, Google is also flouting the so-called 'fifth principle of non-discrimination' for which Google has so fervently advocated."
Consumer advocates dismissed the letter and AT&T's arguments, warning that the move was meant to slow Genachowski's move to implement stronger rules that would ensure consumers have access any legal content or services on the Web.
"To be clear, the FCC's open Internet principles apply to Internet Access Service Providers -- those companies who control the on-ramps to the information superhighway. AT&T raises a red herring with their letter -- the Internet Policy Statement applies only to Internet access services," said Derek Turner, research director at Free Press.
"Whatever regulatory or technical classifications it may eventually fall under, Google Voice is certainly not an Internet access service," Turner said.
September 25, 2009; 2:52 PM ET
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