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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the challenges faced by regulators whose rules for traditional landline phone networks and the Internet are often outdated or not clearly applicable to emerging technologies.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.

By Cecilia Kang  |  September 25, 2009; 2:52 PM ET  | Category:  Cecilia Kang
Previous: Computer Science Professor, Former FCC Official Warns Against Net Neutrality | Next: Google Reponds to AT&T Letter; Public Interest Groups Slam the Phone Giant's Claims

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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Like other new entrants to the telecom field, Google offers a frail service that exists only because the provider thinks it can avoid the basic obligations that traditional telecom carriers are required to bear in order to skim the cream from the top of the market.

They shouldn't be able to have it both ways. If they aren't required to provide service to high access-cost areas (like, say, Indian reservations), then AT&T shouldn't have to, either.

But I think everybody would agree that phone calls need to be connected even to expensive rural areas.

So it follows that the Googles of the world ought to step up to the plate and play on a level playing field. And if they won't, then the FCC ought to make them, or bar them from the business.

Posted by: Itzajob | September 25, 2009 5:23 PM

I use Google voice and it is a totally different application than my ATT service first it bring messages to my Gmail Account and give me a voice message and also converts the voice also to text ATT&T thou doth protest to much !

Posted by: marshalm1 | September 25, 2009 5:51 PM

You know, I have never seen a company cry as much as AT&T has been crying lately! they are simply hating that Google is NOT bound to the same regulations they are as a service provider.

I think web-based companies and service providers are in a totally different arena. what AT&T is REALLY scared of?

The fact that Google's paradigm has YET to be regulated and henceforth they can take advantage of the situation, giving way to the nod of market advantage knowing behind closed doors these types of situations MUST occur in order for markets to be overtaken in the future...

and Google is eating up loads of the future market with having a saturation of web-based services not yet regulated by fed law and any other corporate standard.

I hope Google kills AT&T...and Microsoft while they're at it.

Posted by: cbmuzik | September 25, 2009 6:06 PM

We must not forget all the facts in these cases. AT&T receives the benefits of Universal Service Fund fees on their rural assets as well, so they are already receiving the benefits both ways. And AT&T spends more money on lobbyists than any other company in the world. After more than 100 years of monopoly domination and legislative lobbying, if they don't have enough protectionist laws in place, they need to shut up and go home.

Posted by: nihao1 | September 25, 2009 6:22 PM

Well, I suppose the reason why Google falsely assumes that the U.S. FCC should give them a pass on those telecom laws is because Google's lobbyists have entrenched themselves in the White House. With registered lobbyist, Andrew McLaughlin, as deputy CTO in the Obama administration and Erich Schmidt (Google's CEO) on the President's Council of Advisors for Science and looks as if they are attempting to get their way irregardless of net neutrality. Those folks are devils in waiting. They are known obstructionists and should be put down. I'm glad that ATT and others are pushing back hard. All that has happened is that we traded one form of special interests with another.

Posted by: kitten2 | September 25, 2009 8:11 PM

It's ironic that a company, who abuses their customers (AT&T) with inept and over-priced service, has the nerve to cast stones at Google.

Posted by: TheConsummerJournal | September 26, 2009 6:39 PM

Free Press' stance on this matter demonstrates that, in the "network neutrality" debates, it is acting not on the basis of principle but as an agent of Google (which is -- directly and/or indirectly -- providing them with lots of money). They're an "astroturf" lobbying group that should not be taken seriously.

Posted by: squirma | September 27, 2009 4:52 PM

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