WASHINGTON—Lawmakers admit that they were caught by surprise by Voice-over-IP service and its capacity to radically disrupt the countrys legacy telephone system. Still, the legislators are urging preemptory steps to ensure that state regulators cant impose legacy obligations that might drag the upcoming technology down.
Proponents say the actions are needed to protect VOIP, which likely faces years of contentious debate before Congress can update telecommunications laws to address the emerging technology. In fact, preempting state regulation of VOIP is one of the very few matters not being vigorously disputed by the many diverse players in the industry here. With so much support behind a proposed preemption bill—and with vast differences of opinion on how to address the many issues peripheral to VOIP—several lawmakers are calling for passage of the bill this summer.
“We should act this year,” Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., urged his colleagues on the telecommunications and Internet subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Wednesday. Warning that it will take a minimum of three years for Congress to pass a broad reform of telecom policy, Pickering said that VOIP technology will not wait.
Policy makers note that VOIP does not fit neatly into either of the two categories that Congress crafted to define the ways we communicate: “telecom service” and “information service.” Compounding the difficulty for lawmakers is that the nascent technology, by both straddling and sidestepping the categories, stirs up long-simmering regulatory problems, such as how to ensure affordable telephone service; how to ensure that carriers compensate each other fairly for terminating each others calls; and how to ensure law enforcement has adequate access to the networks.
For Pickering, acting quickly to prevent states from dragging VOIP into these problems on a piecemeal basis will lay the groundwork for Congress to sort through them in a comprehensive manner beginning next year.
“This will be a catalyst to reach universal service reform that will be sustainable,” Pickering said at a hearing of the subcommittee Wednesday morning.
In addition, the Federal Communications Commission is in the middle of a broad examination of VOIP, having ruled that the VOIP service offered by Pulver.com is an information service exempt from traditional regulations, and the VOIP service offered by AT&T Corp. is a telecom service subject to the same regulations its other services are subject to.
To eliminate ambiguity, some in Congress are eager to address Internet-based communications separately. This week, Reps. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., and Rick Boucher, D-Va., introduced a measure on advanced Internet communications services.
“Its time for an entirely new regulatory framework for Internet communications,” Boucher said today. By passing a measure this year that deals only with Internet-based communications, Congress can set the groundwork for re-writing the Telecommunications Act of 1996 next year, he said.
While not opposing the initiative to pre-empt state jurisdiction over VOIP, Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp.s head of regulatory affairs, Margaret Greene, offered the most cautionary perspective among industry views.
“Its more important to get it right than to get it done quickly,” Greene told lawmakers. “Services like VOIP dont ride over the air.”
More than any other carriers, the incumbent Regional Bell Operating Companies remain heavily invested in traditional telephone networking, and they have been the slowest to roll out VOIP offerings.
Some lawmakers are leery of acting quickly on Internet communications absent a larger look at the telecom landscape. Cautioning that many Americans do not have access to broadband connections, Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., questioned whether basic telephone service would remain affordable after high-paying telecom users migrate to VOIP.
In the Senate, lawmakers began examining VOIP policy earlier this year and are preparing to mark up a bill later this month.