Google Voice Muddies Network Neutrality Debate

The Federal Communications Commission's decision to launch an inquiry into the Google Voice service is being welcomed by more than AT&T. However, the controversy has little, if anything, to do with network neutrality and everything to do with inter-carrier compensation rates.

In the high-stakes political game of network neutrality currently under way in Washington, Google is spending a lot of time and money trying to convince the Federal Communications Commission that the agency's network neutrality principles should be expanded for wireline carriers and extended to wireless carriers such as AT&T and Verizon. The carriers, in turn, are sparing no expense to dissuade the FCC of any such notion, including throwing any curve ball possible into the proceedings.
Enter Google Voice, the search giant's free Web application that assigns users one number to ring all of their phones. Google Voice is not a substitute for traditional phone service as users are required to have at least one working number.
Two weeks ago, AT&T complained to the FCC that Google Voice violates the agency's network neutrality principles, since the service blocks calls to numbers with inflated access charges, including calls to certain rural areas and to adult sex chat lines. AT&T, as a common carrier, is required to complete those calls.
AT&T says what's good for the goose is good for Google. If Google wants to run a voice service, AT&T contends, then Google should abide by common carrier laws that come with network neutrality rules that prohibit carriers from blocking legal services.
The latest tit-for-tat in this dispute came Oct. 9 when the FCC informed Google it was opening an inquiry into the matter, asking Google to respond by Oct. 28 to a series of questions about its Google Voice service. Score one for AT&T.
"Recent reports indicate that Google's Voice service restricts calling from consumers to certain rural communities," the FCC wrote to Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel. "In light of pending Commission proceedings regarding [high access fees], the Commission's prohibition on call blocking by carriers, as well as the Commission's ensuring that 'broadband networks are widely deployed, open, affordable and accessible to all consumers,' we are interested in gathering facts that can provide a more complete understanding of this situation."
Among the FCC questions: the ability to have calls to a Google Voice telephone number forwarded to designated telephone numbers, the ability to place outgoing calls from the Google Voice Website and the Google Voice mobile site, and the ability to place outgoing calls by calling your own Google Voice number and signing into the Google voice mail system.
"For each of these functionalities, and any other functionalities that allow Google Voice users to place calls, please describe how the Google Voice call is routed and whether calls to particular telephone numbers are restricted," inquired the FCC. The agency also wants to know if Google informs users about any calling restrictions.
The FCC also invites Google to comment if Google Voice is a reseller of telecommunications services. For good measure, the FCC wants to know how many Google Voice subscribers there are.
AT&T wasn't the only group happy with the FCC's inquiry into Google Voice.
"The FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau today asked some very legitimate questions about the nature of Google Voice," Gigi Sohn, co-founder and president of the public interest group Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "In trying to determine how the service works, and what place it has in telecommunications law, the Commission is starting down a worthwhile path to examine the changing nature of today's telecommunications service. That inquiry should be more far-reaching than this relatively isolated case. We learned recently that another VoIP provider,, reserved the right to block calls to rural areas."
Sohn, though, said the Google-AT&T tiff is not about network neutrality.
"We should be clear that the Commission's inquiry has nothing to do with issues of an open, non-discriminatory Internet, as AT&T alleged when it brought the issue of Google Voice to the Commission's attention last month," she said. "Neither does it have anything to do with denying service to rural customers, as others have said. It has to do with the clash between traditional telephone services and new technological realities."
While Google will unleash a legion of lawyers to reply to the inquiry, Whitt wasted no time in posting a blog entry on the controversy.
"AT&T apparently now wants Web applications-from Skype to Google Voice-to be treated the same way as traditional phone services. Their approach is what a former FCC chairman has called 'regulatory capitalism,' the practice of using regulation to block or slow down innovation," Whitt wrote. "And despite AT&T's lobbying efforts, this issue has nothing to do with network neutrality or rural America. This is about outdated carrier compensation rules that are fundamentally broken and in need of repair by the FCC."
Does Google Voice block some calls? You bet, said Whitt.
"The reason we restrict calls to certain local phone carriers' numbers is simple. Not only do they charge exorbitant termination rates for calls, but they also partner with adult sex chat lines and 'free' conference calling centers to drive high volumes of traffic," Whitt wrote. "This practice has been called 'access stimulation' or 'traffic pumping'. Google Voice is a free application, and we want to keep it that way for all our users-which we could not afford to do if we paid these ludicrously high charges."