WASHINGTON—The current FCC-created dichotomy between the Baby Bells and other communications companies simply doesnt make sense, a diverse panel of communications executives told a conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Monday.
The split, with one set of rules and restrictions for the phone companies and another set entirely for VOIP (voice over IP) and other broadband providers hurts competition and is bad for consumers, the group said.
“The federal requirements should be the same for everyone,” said Eric Schwartz, BellSouth vice president for IP Communications. “The burden of regulation should fall equally on all participants,” he said.
Verizons Director of Regulatory Policy, David Young, agreed.
“Broadband is the enabler of VOIP,” he said. “We need a public policy framework that encourages investment.”
Young proposed a unified approach to VOIP, including less regulation based on whether the provider is a traditional phone company, a cable company or other broadband carrier, or a third-party VOIP provider. “We need to remove legacy hurdles,” he said.
Young also said that it was critical for the future of VOIP that all providers support a number of what he called “social policy objectives.”
Young said that those policy objectives included universal and consistent support for E911, support for law enforcement and national security objectives and support for universal access.
Chris Murray, director of governmental affairs for Vonage, said he agreed, stressing that his company was already working on ways to connect the companys VOIP service to emergency service centers.
“There are over 6,400 emergency centers in the U.S.,” Murray said in response to a reporters question, and he added that a consistent federal approach was vital.
Verizons Young pointed out that such a consistent national approach was really necessary for the success of independent VOIP providers in other ways as well.
One example Young mentioned was a decision by a partner of Bell Canada to prevent the use of Vonage on its network.
Verizon is concerned about such limitations because the company offers its own VOIP service, VoiceWing.
Young said that broadband providers that offer their own voice services should be able to prevent users from choosing whomever they want for their VOIP provider.
Verizons VoiceWing is available on that companys broadband network, and is also available on any broadband network.
Young noted that Verizon requires its users to provide the location where their phone calls will originate so that it can provide E911 service for its customers.
He said that Verizon wont sell the service without such information.
The issue of state control over the activities of VOIP providers goes beyond just the issues of making emergency calls.
Recently, for example, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) agreed with BellSouth that states cannot require phone companies to provide “naked” or unbundled DSL.
When asked by a reporter how this would encourage the growth of VOIP, most of the panel said that it doesnt.
BellSouths Schwartz upheld his companys position that requiring customers to buy voice lines in addition to data lines would help in the growth of VOIP, a suggestion that was treated with derision by Vonage and Verizon representatives.
“Wed rather keep out customers, if only as broadband users,” said Verizons Young. He wondered aloud why any company would force its VOIP customers to also buy a voice phone line or to leave as a customer entirely.
Young noted that Verizon sells unbundled DSL now, and plans to keep selling it.
“It doesnt help the growth of VOIP at all,” said Vonages Murray.
In addition to providing new challenges to customers who might need to reach an emergency center, the growth of VOIP also worries advocates of rural Internet access.
According to Ed Cameron, director of the USDAs advanced services division for rural utilities, the growth of VOIP has also led to the shrinking of the Universal Service Fund. This is a fund paid for by taxes on phone lines provided by the Bells.
As VOIP grows and causes the number of traditional phone lines to shrink, the fund also shrinks.
Cameron said that the shrinking Universal Service Fund is going to make it harder to bring broadband access to users outside what he calls “clusters,” which are concentrations of users such as youd find in towns and cities.
The problem, Cameron said, also goes back to the FCCs seeing a difference between information services and telecommunication services.
“Voice is an application on the network,” Cameron said, pointing out that this is the case regardless of what sort of network it might be using at the time.
Cameron noted that getting broadband to rural areas was already difficult because of the low density of users, but he said that the expense of wiring for broadband in those areas was something that the Universal Service Fund should cover, assuming that there was enough money.
He noted that already the traditional phone companies were objecting to paying to support VOIP over broadband, saying that they were, in effect, funding their own competition.
Cameron said it would help a lot if all voice carriers, including VOIP carriers, were required to contribute to the Universal Service Fund.
He said he sees the day when there will be a new type of digital divide he calls “the VOIPers and the VOIPless.”
He said that unless money is found to bring broadband to rural areas, they will remain VOIPless.
He noted that hed be less worried if existing technologies would deliver on the promise of broadband in remote areas.
He said that Broadband over Powerline wasnt able to deliver on its promise, that fixed broadband wireless didnt seem to be moving, and that satellite Internet access was simply impractical for VOIP.
The organizer of the event, communications attorney Julie Rones, said that representatives of the cable companies had been invited to participate in the panel, but declined due to an existing conflict at a national cable convention also being held this week.