Update: AT&T Slams Google Voice; Could Open Can of Worms
When AT&T complained last week to federal regulators that Google was breaking telecom laws, the phone giant may have opened a bigger debate about the Federal Communications Commission's traditional approach to the industry, analysts and legal experts say.
In a nutshell, AT&T argued in a letter to the FCC last week that Google Voice--a service that, among other things, connects regular old phone calls--was blocking some of those calls to rural areas. That practice, which Google admits to, violates call-blocking laws for traditional phone service operators, known in telecom-speak as "common carriers."
Google argued that its service isn't a telecommunications service but an Internet application that isn't subject to the call-blocking telephone rules. That's where things get messy and interesting.
As regulators shift their focus from telephone regulation to policies for the Web (net neutrality, a national broadband plan), there may be a move to rethink the buckets of technology definitions used during the pre-Internet age.
"The reason why it has become increasingly difficult for the FCC to avoid these questions is because of the broad uptake of broadband services," said Rick Joyce, the chairman of the telecommunications practice of law firm Venable. "We've always said that technology in this sector outstrips the ability for regulators to regulate it. But when 60 to 80 percent of the country has wireless and high-speed broadband access and carries a device that receives or sends all these different kinds of services, then you have reached the proverbial tipping point."
For at least three years, regulators have debated--without clear conclusion--where voice services over the Web fit in. Such Web services, which can include Skype, maybe Google Voice, and Comcast Digital Voice, are for now viewed as information services and not subject to the more heavily regulated world of telephone service operators. But what about text messaging, or SMS services? They aren't currently clearly defined as telecommunications or IP services. And video services like AT&T's U-Verse isn't clearly a cable service, which would strap the service with cable industry regulations.
What is clear, legal experts say, is that from phone giant AT&T's perspective, telephone service providers are living in a world bound by many more regulatory restrictions than the less regulated world in which their Internet counterparts operate. If you are AT&T, you want your competitors to swim in the same pool as you do, said Rebecca Arbogast, head of tech policy research at Stifel Nicholaus.
"If the point of the letter was to stir things up and it is a rhetorical point, that is one thing," Arbogast said. "But if this is a serious position, which is to say that things have changed so profoundly and we need to look at if Google's applications and Apple's decisions and incumbents provision of services all together, then that is major undertaking without certainty where it will end out."
The communications landscape has become all the more complex as firms offer overlapping services. Internet companies like Vonage and Skype offer phone service, phone companies like AT&T and Verizon Communications offer Internet access over their equipment. Cable and phone companies offer video services over data networks.
"Much as the FCC wishes there was still a clear distinction between 'the Internet' and 'the telephone network,' technology has obliterated that difference," Larry Downes, a non-resident fellow at the Stanford Law School Center of Internet and Society, wrote in his blog Tuesday.
He proposed the FCC wipe the slate clean: "Hold everyone to the same rules regardless of what information they are transporting-whether voice, video, television, data. Because regardless of who's doing what, these days it's all bits."
The FCC hasn't commented on AT&T's letter, saying only that it has been received and is under reviewing.
(Update with AT&T response):
When asked if the letter could raise questions at the agency about rewriting regulatory definitions for VOIP services such as Comcast Digital and Web applications like Skype, AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris said:
"Google admits to blocking these calls (we haven't heard that other providers such as Skype or Comcast are doing same), and in our letter, we highlight FCC precedent that would appear to subject Google Voice to the same call blocking prohibition as other providers," Balmoris said in an e-mail. "So, we are urging the Commission to level the playing field and order Google to play by the same rules as its competitors."
September 30, 2009; 10:35 PM ET
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