Google Voice Debate Turning into Telco Tennis Match

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-10-12 Print this article Print

More than two months ago, the Federal Communications Commission put Apple's and AT&T's feet under the fire, trying to find out which one of the brothers-in-arms was responsible for rejecting the Google Voice call management application.

The FCC sent letters to Apple, AT&T and Google, demanding to know how Google's phone management application was shut out of the market, stirring up trouble among mobile application developers.

Apple proved to be the culprit in that case, but my, how times have changed. This telco tizzy has flipped, folks.

More than two weeks ago, AT&T, which Apple stuck up for, assuring the FCC the phone carrier had no say in rejecting Google Voice from the iPhone App Store, complained to the commission that Google Voice was unfairly 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. GigaOm has a detailed take on that practice, which the FCC expressly forbids.

It was the, if-we-can't-flout-net-neutrality-why-can-they play. The FCC, observing its due diligence as a political machine, fell for it and sent Google a letter demanding to know if and how Google Voice calls are restricted, and several other things, such as:

  • Please describe how the Google Voice call is routed and whether calls to particular telephone numbers are restricted.
  • For each functionality for which calls to particular telephone numbers are restricted, please describe the technological means by which those restrictions are implemented.
  • How does Google inform Google Voice users about any restrictions in the numbers to which calls can be placed using Google Voice?
  • To what extent are each of these Google Voice functionalities offered for free?
  • To what extent, if any, does Google charge for any of these services?
  • Does Google intend to charge at some point for the service?
  • How does Google currently pay for the service?

Basically, as TechDirt pointed out, the FCC took AT&T's letter and rewrote the statements and claims as questions.

The FCC could have saved itself a lot of time by forwarding AT&T's original complaint to Google with a sticky note saying asking: Is all of this true? Please explain.

So, why did the FCC do this? First, the FCC is lost at sea with regard to Internet applications. They need to have this stuff explained to them, like they're 6-year-olds. That's OK, they've had decades to learn how the telcos work. This Web stuff is pretty new.

Second, DSL Reports' Karl Bode has a great, if not conspiratorial, take on this, noting that the FCC letter mirrors AT&T's letter, "showing you how quickly AT&T lobbyists can get their personal bipartisan butlers in Congress to help them."

Bode also notes:

Perhaps the attention will bring pressure on the FCC to finally get around to shoring up the regulatory loopholes that allow traffic pumping to occur in the first place. The FCC has been looking into refining the rules since 2007, but it's a touchy issue because such services are so popular among consumers. Regulation is inconsistent on this front, and most everybody agrees (including both AT&T and Google) that the rules allowing such services need reworking.

AT&T may in fact be painting Google as the bad guy (to score points with Apple?), but Google shouldn't be allowed to block calls because Google Voice is a Web app unfettered by common carrier and net neutrality restrictions.

Of course, Google and pundits accuse AT&T of unfairly using the network neutrality angle in its argument when it's actually about broken telco laws. This may be so, but the motive doesn't matter to me.

Offering calling management services as a Web app to work around the carrier system is sneaky despite Whitt's amusing protestations. Restrict all or restrict none. It's just bits, as some folks say.

The FCC rules that govern telco practices and data are severely wanting in balance, common sense and, most egregiously, simplicity. Chairman Julius Genachowski can't rewrite the rules fast enough, in my opinion.

There is another angle at play here that merits consideration. I've already tossed out the notion that Google wants to disrupt the antiquated, old-line telco foundation.

What if Google has deliberately crafted its Google Voice Web app to force the FCC to make amendments to its outdated telco rules? It's still sneaky, but it's ingenious. Given Google's smarts and savvy, I wouldn't discount it. |

Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel