These days, the mere mention that Google is offering a new VOIP (voice over IP) service raises concerns about whether the company is creeping closer to becoming a carrier.
One industry analyst raised this question last month when Google unveiled Call Phones from Gmail.
With Call Phones from Gmail, users can type the name of their existing Gmail contacts or punch in a number for the first time, hit enter, and Gmail begins ringing the person's landline or cell phone. Calls are free to the U.S. and Canada. International calls start at 2 cents a minute.
The feature, essentially the Google Voice phone management capability tucked into Gmail, moved Google into closer competition with Skype, the consumer VOIP market leader with some 560 million users.
Yet IDC analyst Irene Berlinksy cautions that Call Phones from Gmail, Google Voice and other communications products such as Google Chat that have video calling could be make the company a target for carrier regulation.
"With Google VOIP's ability to place calls to any number, it creeps ever closer to regulation and risks classification as a voice service, which would subject it to fees and rules. If this happens, Google VOIP's ability to remain profitable falls," Berlinsky says.
If this argument sounds familiar, it's because it echoes claims made by AT&T when it blasted the search provider last September for blocking calls in rural areas.
Google and other companies do this to avoid getting gouged by "traffic pumping," which allows small phone companies to charge phone companies exorbitant fees for voice connections.
Richard Whitt, Washington Telecom and Media Counsel for Google, argues that Google could not be classified as a carrier because Google Voice is free and is not intended as a replacement for traditional carriers, which charge for their services.