In a "town hall" meeting Monday night at the VON Conference & Expo here, Jeffrey Carlisle, chief of the FCCs Wireline Competition Bureau, and Robert Pepper, chief of policy development at the FCC, answered audience questions on regulatory issues. A key topic was the recent blocking of VOIP traffic by Madison River Communications, a wholly owned subsidiary of Madison River Telephone Company LLC, and whether that scenario could repeat itself with other ISPs.
According to Carlisle, consumers are becoming more savvy about their broadband providers and will notice if services such as those provided by Vonage Holdings Corp. stop working. The industry is going through a "frontier period," Carlisle said, where corporations could press the limits of the law.
"Consumers will know if theyre not able to get something," Carlisle said. "If I see a Vonage box in the store, [bring it home], and I cant get Vonage, Im going to know about that." In that case, consumers will simply choose another broadband provider that provides the services that theyre looking for, he said.
In the case of Madison River, the ISP allegedly began blocking ports used for VOIP traffic in February. Following complaints by Vonage and another ISP, the FCC began investigating on Feb. 11 to see if Madison Rivers actions violated provisions of the Communications Act of 1934.
Madison River did not admit wrongdoing but made a "voluntary" payment of $15,000 to the U.S. Treasury and agreed to stop blocking the ports used in VOIP, according to the consent decree that the FCC posted on its Web site.
"The second protection if the first protection doesnt work is a regulatory solution," Carlisle said. "[But] well have to see how the market shakes out."
A larger ongoing question is simply how VOIP will be viewed by the FCC, a political organization where a majority of three votes is enough to enact telecom policy into law, pending a review by U.S. District Court. The Telecommunications Act of 1934 plus the Telecommunications Act of 1996 serve as the FCCs "constitution," the framework of legislation the agency has to interpret and refine. If it goes too far, however, the FCCs work can become subject to judicial review and overturned.
Carlisle and Pepper also acknowledged that the agency is looking ahead toward the regulation of broadcast IP; in France and Korea, for example, television shows are broadcast over IP networks to home users. However, such regulation is part of Title VI of the Telecommunications Act, not the more heavily scrutinized Title II, which deals with common carrier regulation.
"Our record on voice issues is substantial, but there is comparatively little on video at this point," Carlisle said.
Ideally, the agency would simply have to regulate the bits as they passed through the air or over the wire, instead of determining whether the voice or video was unregulated content, or a telecommunications medium that must be regulated, Carlisle said. As carriers move from circuit-switched to a next-generation IP network, the agency is going to have to find a "better construct", he said.
For example, companies like 8x8 Inc. regard the transmission of video and voice in their video phones as a unified medium. But as Pepper pointed out, the current statutes only regulate the transmission of broadcast-quality video. That definition could be further parsed to include regulations on the transmission of still images accompanying voice, or assigning different definitions to video passed at different frame rates.
"Ideally, there isnt a video, there isnt a voice. There is a data, and thats where public policy should be going," Carlisle said.