Saturday, October 10, 2009

The FCC Begins Examining Google Voice Restrictions

This will prove to you that the FCC does read stuff, at least when it comes from the likes of AT&T. Earlier, AT&T sent a letter to the FCC accusing Google with violating FCC regulations by blocking calls to certain rural areas from its Google Voice service. Apparently the FCC listened.

Certain rural companies may charge high access fees to reach certain customers. AT&T complained that, while telecommunications companies cannot block access to those numbers, Google Voice was. Google's stance is that its service is not a true telecom, and additionally, that the service is free.

A bipartisan group in the House of Representatives urged the FCC to get involved. You can bet there was some lobbying involved, as well. The FCC's letter (.PDF), titled "Google Voice Calling Restrictions," the FCC asked Google a series of 5 questions.
  1. With regards to Google Voice functionality, how are calls routed, how are numbers restricted, how are users informed when such a number is restricted, and since Google Voice is free, does Google intend charging for it in the future?
  2. What is meant by "invitation-only?" (oh, come on).
  3. How does Google believe its various Google Voice services fit within the statutory classifications in the Communications Act of 1934?
  4. How does Google identify the telephone numbers to which it restricts calls? Does it restrict calls to individual telephone numbers, or to particular exchanges or NPA-NXXs? Why does Google Voice restrict calls to these numbers? (We know why; it's because of the high fees I mentioned above)
  5. Does Google contract with third parties to obtain inputs for its Google Voice service, such as access to telephone numbers, transmission of telephone calls, and interconnection with local telephone networks?
To be clear, as I said, Google’s decision to block certain numbers is because of the very high fees some rural local carriers charge telecommunications companies like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc. to connect to their customers.

Those telecom companies are forced to allow the calls to be put through, and AT&T, which previously tried to restrict calls as Google Voice is, is obviously ticked off. In addition, since few people normally call these rural numbers, these local carriers team up with conference calling centers and sex lines as well. This is evidenced by Google's response to the FCC, titled "Sex, conference calls, and outdated FCC rules."

Google also points out the hypocrisy of AT&T's complaint:
Some have pointed out that AT&T's complaints are hypocritical given that in the past they have asked the FCC for permission to block calls to these rural areas as well. Why? For exactly the same reasons we restrict them -- the exorbitant termination rates. Of course, AT&T charges customers for their services and also receives hundreds of millions of dollars in universal service subsidies.

AT&T apparently now wants web applications -- from Skype to Google Voice -- to be treated the same way as traditional phone services. Their approach is what a former FCC chairman has called "regulatory capitalism," the practice of using regulation to block or slow down innovation. And despite AT&T's lobbying efforts, this issue has nothing to do with network neutrality or rural America. This is about outdated carrier compensation rules that are fundamentally broken and in need of repair by the FCC.
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