Tense Times for Web Phone Apps Google Voice, Skype

The Google Voice Web calling application and Skype VOIP service are being threatened. The Federal Communications Commission is looking at Google Voice as a potential network neutrality disruption. Meanwhile, courts are looking at whether Skype's intellectual property is being abused by Skype owner eBay, Skype and investors attempting to buy the bulk of Skype. These are tense times indeed for our beloved Web phone applications.

News Analysis: What is happening to two of our favorite Web phone applications? They're being threatened, but in markedly different ways.

First, Google Voice, the Web calling management application. Google Voice gives users a phone number that can forward calls to any other number they want, including home, office and mobile numbers.

Apple rejected it, ostensibly to keep a competitor from its door. See, Google Voice has a dialer function that replicates that on Apple's smash-hit iPhone. Call it good ole fashioned gamesmanship between two Silicon Valley rivals. These BFFs have gone the way of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.

Most recently, Google Voice came under the gun from AT&T, which whined to the Federal Communications Commission that Google Voice is getting away with network neutrality murder.

AT&T complained about 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. Google admitted doing this, but claimed it was OK because it isn't constrained by the rules that govern carriers.

In that issue, I've already written that I don't think Google Voice should get a free pass, and it turns out I'm not the only one who feels this way. Larry Downes, a fellow at the Stanford Law School Center of Internet and Society, wrote in his blog:

""There's a simple solution to all this, one that might make a rational conversation about net neutrality possible. And that is to eliminate the distinction between common carriers and everyone else. Hold everyone to the same rules regardless of what information they are transporting-whether voice, video, television, data. Because regardless of who's doing what, these days it's all bits. There is no rational reason to regulate the bits based on who is transporting them. The FCC doesn't even try to justify the distinction anymore. Let's just get rid of it.""

I agree with Mr. Downes. The Wall Street Journal took a similar position to what it called "Google's Exceptionalism" in an editorial Oct. 3. It's behind the blasted paywall, but all you need to know is the conclusion:

""The coming convergence will make it increasingly difficult to distinguish among providers of broadband pipes, network services and applications. Once net neutrality is unleashed, it's hard to see how anything connected with the Internet will be safe from regulation.""

The FCC is examining AT&T's complaint, and I suspect the group will begin to crack down on the freewheeling way Internet applications operate on the Web. Regulating Web apps is a minefield, but the FCC may feel that in regard to apps like Google Voice, which does execute several features of traditional phone companies, some law and order is required. And that is what is frightening. Once that starts, it's hard to stop.