The US Federal Communications Commissions Sharon E. Gillett, chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau, has formally requested Google to provide details of its Google Voice service.
Among the information requested: “Does Google intend to charge at some point for the service?”, “How does Google currently pay for the service?”, “please describe how the Google Voice call is routed and whether calls to particular telephone numbers are restricted”, and “For each functionality for which calls to particular telephone numbers are resticted, please describe the technological means by which those means are implemented”.
Google’s response to date has been to lash out at AT&T, whom it seeks to blame for bringing up concerns about the services call restrictions. In a post on the Google Public Policy blog entitled Sex, Conference Calls and Outdated FCC Rules, Google attorney Richard Whitt says “AT&T apparently now wants web applications from Skype to Google Voice to be treated the same way as traditional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.”
Some have said that AT&T is hypocritical, since it would also like to be able to restrict calls to certain numbers. Because of the FCC’s “common carrier” rules, it is not allowed to do so. The issue goes back to 2007 and a clash big telcos Verizon, AT&T, and Qwest had with a group of smaller carriers over so called traffic pumping.
The FCC’s intercarrier regulations mandate that big telcos pay smaller carriers certain access fees for completing calls through their typically rural networks. Lower volume rural carriers are less profitable and need to be subsidized. As long as the big carriers are guaranteed enough of a profit margin, they dont mind Government pushing the subsidies off onto them. But corporate sleazebags soon found ways to scam the system.
A Small Telco carrier would convince conference call or chat-line 900 call companies (hence the title of the Google blog post) to offer free or very cheap services that had calling numbers terminating in their area. They then billed AT&T or one of the other big telcos exorbitant intercarrier compensation rates and shared part of the windfall with the 900 call company. This is what Traffic Pumping is, and in certain areas of the country it became big business.
Big Telcos complained of the practice in 2007 to the FCC, seeking to allow them to block calls to particular numbers. The FCC, while admitting that traffic pumping was a problem, denied them ability to block, reduce or choke call traffic, in a Declaratory Ruling. So is AT&T just using the Google Voice service as a way to bring the traffic pumping issue back onto the table?
Even Google admits the intercarrier compensation rules are outdated. But they also are clear on the fact that GV is not a paid service, there is no implied or explicit contract to complete all calls as there is with the Big Telcos service. Whether the FCC will see the distinction remains to be seen. Google has unwittingly opened up a can of worms with this one.