FCC Says Telco Must Allow VOIP Traffic

By Daniel Dern  |  Posted 2005-03-04

FCC Says Telco Must Allow VOIP Traffic

In response to a complaint by broadband communications company Vonage Holdings Corp., the U.S. Federal Communications Commission announced on Thursday its ruling that "Madison River shall not block ports used for VOIP applications or otherwise prevent customers from using VOIP applications."

Founded in April 1996, Madison River Communications, a wholly owned subsidiary of Madison River Telephone Company LLC, serves DSL and residential and business voice customers in the Midwestern, Mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coast areas of the United States, including local, long-distance and Internet services. The company is based in Mebane, N.C.

Vonage, a broadband communications company, is a major provider of VOIP (voice over IP) services.

"VOIP lets people have telephony-like conversations over the Internet, using regular analog ("POTS") phones or VOIP phones plus an adapter that plugs into their broadband, rather than a needing a headset that plugs into their computer," said Chris Murray, director of Government Affairs at Vonage.

While most of Vonages customers are residents, the company also has enterprise and SMB customers, as well as "white-label" resellers and partners such as Armstrong Cable, Earthlink, and LECs(Local Exchange Companies) and utilities.

"The speed the FCC acted with indicates the level of seriousness that the FCC is going to treat Internet gateways," Murray said in a telephone interview Friday.

Read more here about the state of California mounting a legal challenge to a recent FCC ruling that VOIP services sold by Vonage were exempt from state and local regulations and tariffs.

Earlier this year, Vonage received service complaints from customers, including one tech-savvy customer who realized his ports were being blocked, said Murray.

"We determined that probably 200 to 300 customers were being affected. We sent down one of our engineers along with a third-party engineer, to verify that port-blocking was indeed happening."

A "port" is an IP subaddress. IP has 36,000 ports; "well-known" port numbers are usually assigned to specific protocols and applications and vice versa, for example, e-mail, HTTP, Telnet, FTP, and protocols such as SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) used by VOIP.

Next Page: The case builds.

The case builds


Port-blocking by ISPs is a form of network interference.

"Maintaining open networks is one of the fundamental premises of the Communications Act," Murray said. "This is the first time, I believe, that the FCC had received a well-documented case of port-blocking."

"We know they were specifically trying to block SIP traffic, because there were other ports open, like file-sharing ports," Murray said.

"So it wasnt something they were doing for network management purposes, like to restrict file-sharing technologies. At that point we decided to submit an FCC enforcement complaint."

According to Vonage, "Last month, the Enforcement Bureau issued a Letter of Inquiry ("LOI") to Madison River Communication LLC initiating an investigation about allegations that Madison River was blocking ports used for VOIP applications, thereby affecting customers ability to use VOIP through one or more VOIP service providers."

In addition to filing the complaint to the FCC, Vonage routed around the blocking, by using different ports—"a manual fix which takes a lot of time to do," Murray said.

Richard Diamond, a spokesman at the FCC, said in a phone interview, "There were allegations that the company had been blocking ports, causing Vonage customers and possibly others to lose service. We investigated starting Feb. 11. The results—in very swift action three weeks later, we arrived at a Consent Degree—an agreement between the FCC and the telephone company —involving a voluntary contribution to the U.S. Treasury and agreeing to take initiate a compliance plan to make sure this doesnt happen in the future."

According to the terms of the consent decree, Madison River commits that it will refrain from blocking VOIP traffic and ensure that such blocking will not recur.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said, "We saw a problem, and we acted swiftly to ensure that Internet voice service remains a viable option for consumers."

Click here to read the eWEEK.com Editorial Boards opinion that the FCC made the correct decision recently when it labeled the services of VOIP providers fundamentally interstate in nature.

The speed of the FCC in the matter is notable in itself.

"What matters is that this was important enough to the FCC to consider the case and expedite it," said Diamond.

"We moved as quickly as we could to stop the practice because we think that Internet voice service is important. And if there are any other solid cases where this is happening, we want to know."

"It was unfortunate that this illegal port blocking took place, but were thrilled that the FCC acted so quickly and so clearly to keep the Internet open," said Murray.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on voice over IP and telephony.

Rocket Fuel