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Google Voice May Be Breaking Phone Rules, But Not Net Neutrality: Experts

AT&T's beef with Google Voice for blocking phone calls to rural areas may carry some weight, telecom policy experts and sources at the Federal Communications Commission said. But they are skeptical about AT&T's complaint that Google's phone calling service also violates net neutrality rules.

In a ATT Letter to FCC on Google Voice v7 filed last Friday to the FCC, AT&T said Google's service was violating telecom laws by blocking expensive call connections to rural areas. FCC sources said the agency probably won't respond to the letter in coming weeks as official focus on its universal broadband project and with a vote in three weeks on Chairman Julius Genachowski's proposal to expand and codify net neutrality rules.

Google admitted it was blocking the calls but said it wasn't subject to the same rules that would prevent a company like AT&T from doing so because it isn't a traditional phone company, or common carrier. As noted in a previous post, legal experts say AT&T's complaint raises legitimate questions about how to regulate Web applications that seem to straddle the old telecom world and the new Internet economy. Sources in the agency, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agency hasn't officially responded to the letter, said many are trying to grasp where Google Voice fits in its regulatory regime. Google says it's a Web application, but it connects calls on regular old phone lines.

But they say Google isn't an Internet service provider, so couldn't be violating net neutrality rules -- the guidelines for how Web service providers like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon can run their networks.

The news of Google Voice's blocking of calls and AT&T's complaint has generated lively reader feedback.

Reader "mdembski1" said AT&T looks right: "Google blocks the calls because incoming calls to many rural areas are charged more by the local carriers. Much as I hate to admit it, ATT is right on this. If the playing field is going to be level, it needs to be level for everyone all the time. GOOGLE doesn't want to call it a phone service, but it is. As such it needs to abide by the same rules as ATT does when placing a phone call over the copper,"

Reader cbmuzik wrote: "What in the Sam Phatness is AT&T so scared of?" They are REALLY going at Google hard aren't they? And what's all this hub bub about a level playing field? They should have considered that before they signed the deal with Apple in trying to monopolize the iPhone business . . ."'

"AJohn1" said offered a solution to the FCC: "Maybe the FCC should look at classifying the services by layer and determining regulation that way. I would think the people at the physical layer would need slightly different rules than those at the application layer... since the big boys are rarely pure plays on one layer, though, it would likely effectively even the playing field while allowing niche players to exploit certain advantages."

Finally, one reader noted that the battle between AT&T and Google are far removed from what consumers really care about: prices for broadband.

So amid all the questions about Google Voice, here a few observations from what this reporter learned from experimenting with it over the last day: It aggregates phone numbers and makes calls. Users can manage the calls, voice mail, and text messages through the Google Voice Web site, making it a Web-based application. But because calls made through the service that connect through regulator old copper wire lines to reach other users, for all intents and purposes, it also looks like a regular old phone calling service. Yes, still confused.

But what many agree on is that Google isn't violating net neutrality rules, experts say.

"Google gets off the hook on a lot of this stuff because they don't own a network," said Rick Joyce, the head of the telecommunications group at law firm Venable. "They have a shadow network with servers, but you don't go to Google to subscribe for Internet monthly access. So taking pokes at Google, won't be effective if what you are trying to do is create fair and equitable regulatory field because this is sort of like shadow boxing."

By Cecilia Kang  |  October 2, 2009; 9:00 AM ET  | Category:  Cecilia Kang
Previous: Readers Ask for Disclosure That Washington Post Owns Cable Co. | Next: Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists, Entrepreneurs Give a Video Thumbs-Up to Net Neutrality

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