AT&T Sept. 25 sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission protesting Google’s blocking of telephone calls from consumers who use its Google Voice service to call phone numbers with inflated access charges in certain rural areas.
AT&T argued that by blocking these calls, Google reduces its access expenses, giving it an advantage phone carriers are prevented from enjoying and thus skewering the competition principles in U.S. network neutrality laws. Google Voice is a Web-based phone management service the search engine offers to let users funnel all of their phone calls via one new number to work, home and mobile phones.
“Google Voice has claimed for itself a significant advantage over providers offering competing services,” wrote AT&T Senior Vice President-Federal Regulatory Robert Quinn. “By openly flaunting the call blocking prohibition that applies to its competitors, Google is acting in a manner inconsistent with the spirit, if not the letter, of the FCC’s fourth principle contained in its Internet Policy Statement.”
Google has long been a stickler for network neutrality rules, regularly taking carriers such as Verizon and AT&T to task for threatening the principles that free the Internet from restrictions on networks, services, applications and devices. Network neutrality benefits Google because it enables the company to saturate the market with Web services on any devices or platforms.
AT&T decided turnabout is fair play. The phone carrier argued that Google Voice should be subject to the same call blocking prohibition as phone providers because it includes a calling platform that offers unified communications capabilities and provides the IP-in-the-middle connection for calls between landline and mobile phones.
Richard Whitt, Washington telecom and media counsel for Google, noted that Google Voice does restrict certain outbound calls to high-priced destinations, such as adult chat services, conference calling centers and party lines. However, he said there are a few key differences between Google Voice and traditional phone services.
First, he said Google Voice is a free Internet application and is not subject to common carrier laws. Moreover, because Google Voice does not enable users to call directly from one phone to the next-users need an existing landline or mobile phone to use it-the application is not intended to be a replacement for traditional phone services. Finally, he said Google Voice is currently invitation-only, serving a limited number of users.
“AT&T is trying to make this about Google’s support for an open Internet, but the comparison just doesn’t fly,” Whitt said in a blog post. “The FCC’s open Internet principles apply only to the behavior of broadband carriers-not the creators of Web-based software applications. Even though the FCC does not have jurisdiction over how software applications function, AT&T apparently wants to use the regulatory process to undermine Web-based competition and innovation.”
AT&T is asking the FCC, whose Chairman Julius Genachowski this week proposed 21 new network neutrality rules for fostering more transparency among phone carriers and said he would consider extending network neutrality rules to the mobile Internet, to extend the same rules for carriers to Google Voice.
“The Commission cannot, through inaction or otherwise, give Google a special privilege to play by its own rules while the rest of the industry, including those who compete with Google, must instead adhere to Commission regulations,” Quinn wrote. “We urge the Commission to level the playing field and order Google to play by the same rules as its competitors.”
The arguments from AT&T and Google are compelling, but AT&T’s letter will certainly get the FCC to take a close look at Google Voice.
AT&T, of course, is the sole carrier for the smash-hit smartphone. The argument about Google Voice, it seems, has come full circle. Read more on TechMeme here.