FCC Eyeing Google Voice

Published December 2, 2009

The Federal Communications Commission reportedly has launched an inquiry into Google Voice, following complaints of the tech giant’s voice service blocking some calls, especially in rural areas.

AT&T complained about Google pushing for net neutrality rules prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or slowing Internet traffic while blocking some calls on its Web-based telephone service to some phone numbers with high access charges.

Google’s public policy blog said in October the service restricts calls to some local phone carriers because “not only do they charge exorbitant termination rates for calls, but they also partner with adult sex chat lines and ‘free’ conference calling centers to drive high volumes of traffic.

“This practice has been called ‘access stimulation’ or ‘traffic pumping.’ Google Voice is a free application and we want to keep it that way for all our users–which we could not afford to do if we paid these ludicrously high charges,” the blog added.

Net Neutrality Complaints

Google is among the most powerful companies pushing for the FCC to impose net neutrality on Internet access providers.

The company has criticized AT&T and Apple for their reluctance to allow voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) services on the iPhone, though they recently allowed Skype’s VoIP service. Now Google is being accused of violating net neutrality principles by imposing restrictions on the use of Google Voice.

Andy Abramson, author of the VoIP Watch blog, said Google is taking its current position because it has to pay more for these calls than it can make. AT&T does something similar with its prepaid Go phone, not allowing it to work in areas where roaming charges would be higher than prepaid charges.

“This isn’t about net neutrality, and AT&T knows it’s not about net neutrality,” said Alec Saunders, CEO of Ottawa, Ontario-based Iotum, which provides free conference calling services under the Calliflower name. “In the Internet world, where so many goods and services are digital, net neutrality is the modern-day equivalent of Roosevelt regulating the railways to make sure that every business gets treated fairly getting their goods to market.”

Google Wanted Crackdown

Adam Thierer, president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC, said Google has little reason to complain if the FCC cracks down.

“If you open the door to regulation of one layer of the ‘Net, you open up the door to the eventual regulation of all layers of the ‘Net,” Thierer said.

Abramson disagrees with Google’s complaint, arguing the market, not the government, should work out these problems.

“The customer doesn’t have to use this. There are plenty of other services they could use,” said Abramson.

Abramson argues the entire regulatory structure for telecom needs to be overhauled.

“In too many rural areas, the FCC protects older telecom infrastructure rather than allowing the market to push forward IP-based services as in European and Southeast Asian countries, where communication speeds far outstrip that of the United States,” Abramson said.

Phil Britt ( [email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.