AT&T cries foul to FCC, uses Google Voice to spark Net Neutrality debate

AT&T cries foul to FCC, uses Google Voice to spark Net Neutrality debate

Summary: There's a Net Neutrality battle going on and AT&T has put a double-edged sword at the feet of the FCC - and Google's name is written all over it.AT&T sent a letter to the FCC today, asking the regulatory agency to look into the practices of Google Voice, specifically its refusal to connect calls to certain numbers - such as adult chat lines - because they charge excessive fees.

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There's a Net Neutrality battle going on and AT&T has put a double-edged sword at the feet of the FCC - and Google's name is written all over it.

AT&T sent a letter to the FCC today, asking the regulatory agency to look into the practices of Google Voice, specifically its refusal to connect calls to certain numbers - such as adult chat lines - because they charge excessive fees. According to AT&T's reasoning, Google is acting like a telecommunications company because it's connecting calls. And as a telecommunications company, it's subject to laws that prohibit a carrier from blocking access to numbers. (AT&T statement. PDF of letter from Washington Post, Techmeme)

In a rebuttal blog post, Google actually agreed with AT&T on its points about carriers that charge excessive fees. In it, , writes:

We agree with AT&T that the current carrier compensation system is badly flawed, and that the single best answer is for the FCC to take the necessary steps to fix it.

But Google is not a telecommunications company and therefore isn't subject to those regulations. In fact, Google Voice doesn't even work unless it's linked to a landline or wireless phone. As a stand-alone service, it is incapable of placing and receiving phone calls. It's a Web service.

Well then, if Google Voice is a Web service, then AT&T has a completely different beef. In its letter to the FCC, the AT&T writes:

But even if Google Voice is instead an “Internet application,” Google would still be subject to the Commission’s Internet Policy Statement, whose fourth principle states that “consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.” This fourth principle cannot fairly be read to embrace competition in which one provider unilaterally appropriates to itself regulatory advantages over its competitors. By openly flaunting the call blocking prohibition that applies to its competitors, Google is acting in a manner inconsistent with the fourth principle.

Again, anyone who understands how Google Voice works knows that it's not a competitor. Having a Google Voice account has not provided me with a way to dump either my landline or wireless phone. On the contrary. Now I have to keep one or the other (or in my case, both.) But let's get back to AT&T's letter. It gets better:

Ironically, Google is also flouting the so-called “fifth principle of non-discrimination” for which Google has so fervently advocated. According to Google, non-discrimination ensures that a provider “cannot block fair access” to another provider. But that is exactly what Google is doing when it blocks calls that Google Voice customers make to telephone numbers associated with certain local exchange carriers.

My understanding, though, is that the fair access blocking issue has to do with Internet Service Providers - the companies that we pay every month to give us a connection to the Internet, companies like... AT&T. Get to the tail end of the AT&T letter and you'll see where AT&T is really headed with this. It seems that this beef with Google and Google Voice is less about Google and Google Voice and more about the recent announcement to impose Net Neutrality rules to create a open-access Internet, rules that would force ISPs like AT&T to open those pipelines and let Web surfers do whatever they want, even if it's data-heavy activities like streaming video. Here's the noteworthy excerpt from the letter:

AT&T strongly emphasizes that the existing Internet principles are serving consumers well in their current form and there is no sound reason to radically expand and codify those principles. But if the Commission nonetheless embarks on such a course as it apparently plans to do in an upcoming rulemaking, it absolutely must ensure that any such rules apply evenly – not just to network operators but also to providers of Internet applications, content and services. Anything less would be ineffective, legally suspect and, in all events, a direct repudiation of President Obama’s call for a “level playing field.”

For the record, I think AT&T is way off-base here. Google Voice is not a competitor - plain and simple. And clouding the issue by putting Google under the microscope over the "public access" issue doesn't change the fact that the access to which the FCC is referring is Internet access - the pipeline.

Still, I think AT&T makes some valid arguments about Google and its "special privilege to play but its own rules." The FCC should be looking at Web companies and how their services are overlapping traditional communications services. The technology isn't going to slow down and the overlap areas - as well as the rules - are only going to get cloudier. As much as the FCC should be looking at whether regulation of Web services is necessary, it should also be considering whether some of the current rules imposed are appropriate in the Internet age. Maybe it does need to loosen the belt a bit.

Clearly, this is an issue that Washington is going to have to deal with. In a video interview earlier this month, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said the more familiar lawmakers in Washington become with Google Apps - such as GMail - the more likely they are to understand how they work and set policy appropriately.

Sounds to me like Google needs to beef up its supply of 202 phone numbers on Google Voice and start scattering invitations across Capitol Hill.

Also see: FCC's Net neutrality push: Is wireless access different?

WSJ wrongly blames AT&T for Google Voice iPhone app rejection

Topics: Browser, Google, Government, Government US, Telcos, AT&T

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17 comments
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  • Google already responded

    Google already replied to AT&T
    drvoip
  • Bring on the lawyers!

    I don't pretend to understand the finer points of this AT&T-Google
    disagreement. But it does make me wonder how Apple fits into the
    Google Voice app hooha. Kind of seems like they're caught in the
    middle, doesn't it?
    Userama
  • We've gone about as long...

    as we can go without some serious government regulations. Providing the infrastructure as a service and providing services across the infrastructure are two things that cannot be provided by the same company without causing unresolvable competition/monopoly situations.

    If you look at every reason that broadband providers put forth to justify stopping or curtailing traffic, Google Voice does not fall under any of them. But yet there is a big problem between the infrastructure service provider and provider of services over the infrastructure. In fact, this squabble has nothing to do with AT&T's network or broadband or Internet per se. This is all about AT&T's telephone service. But AT&T has chosen to fight Google's encroachment on that service using their broadband service. AT&T has chosen a novel approach, however, let a third party block the traffic. After reading AT&T's letters, there is no doubt in my mind that they were absolutely involved with Apple in blocking Google Voice.

    I can see only two ways that the Internet can ever be Neutral. The first way is to nationalize the infrastructure in the same way the Interstate system is. I personally like this idea but method two would probably be more likely to fly though I don't see it happening either. All infrastructure providers need to divest this service from the rest of their operations. At this point competition can actually begin to solve the issues like the one we are seeing.

    The future holds the probability of some massive regulations which will end up costing the consumer in the long run and after that the problem will still not be resolved. This all could be avoided through competition, however, with the divesture of the infrastructure providers.
    bjbrock
  • Define telecommunications company.

    If Google Voice connects calls, what makes it any different
    from AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint? Their services don't work,
    either, unless connected to a landline or wireless phone. All
    they do is connect calls. If I decide to change my landline
    from Verizon to AT&T, there'd be no new wires run to my
    house. My new telecom provider would merely be connecting
    my calls, through the landlines that already exist.

    How is Google different in this regard?
    msalzberg
    • Agreed.

      AT&T and Google are both providing telecommunication services across the infrastructure. AT&T's providing of the infrastructure is a totally different and separate service. It must be looked at as two completely different thing for net neutrality reg's. to work. Since AT&T and Google are both providing basically the same type of service across the infrastructure they should both have to follow the same rules and reg's when it comes to these services.
      bjbrock
    • errr... one second.

      But wasen't google voice unable to work unless you had allready a connect call service. Infact Google voice sounds more like a redirection of calls when a true Phone Service Provider(Google Voice alone cannot do anything.... unless I'm mistaken)


      Disclaimer: I never used Google voice and I will probably refuse to use it for privacy issues...
      Ceridan
    • Definition of a phone company...

      Consider this, the PBX at my company also connects calls. Does that make my company a phone company? No. It's just a service.

      How about services like WebEx? They provide interconnections between phones and PCs for teleconferencing. Are they are phone company too? No. They only provide a service.

      I'm sure others could find many more examples.

      AT&T's letter was completely unprofessional and unwarrented.
      Narg
    • Define telecommunications

      Based on the interdependencies between voice & data communications and IT, everything get's blurred.
      Anita Y. Mathis
  • Telecomm or "telephone"?

    Does a third-party company have the right to overlay their ideas of how things should be done over another company's product and/or service? In a sense, apps like Google Voice are akin to being a virtual version of the telephone itself. It certainly influences how calls are made, and at the least it apparently acts as an intermediary interface between the user and the actual distribution service that routes the data...in a sense just like a telephone does.

    Once upon a time the only place someone could get their landline telephone from was...AT&T. They provided the service, local and long distance, and their subsidiaries made the equipment and provided the hardware that they provided to all consumers. Since the government-induced breakup of Ma Bell, we have considerably more choice in how we choose to use and equip our abilities in giving ourselves voice connectivity...so how is an app like Google Voice really any different? If we don't like the way AT&T or Apple does the interface on the iPhone platform, why can't we opt for another way, whether its Google Voice or a similar app from another vendor or party?
    flatliner
  • Google is a add-on to telephones, not a phone...

    This is such BULL! Google's Voice product is only a feature for an exsisting phone. Just like hundreds of other such services offered by many other companies on many levels. None of them have to follow phone company rules.

    AT&T really goofed up on this one. BADLY!
    Narg
  • Do you... YAHOO?

    Well, do ya newbie? Go ahead punk; make my 24 hour chronilogical time period.
    El Condor
  • RE: AT&T cries foul to FCC, uses Google Voice to spark Net Neutrality debate

    Gee, ATT if you want all of monopoly you get all of the headaches with that, not only the profits. ATT, please stop complaining that people "overusing" your network since so many people are paying for this privileged and are expecting this service to functional and up at majority of times. Maybe it is time for another break up of "old" Ma Bell.
    phatkat
  • Newsflash:AT&T to ban kids from tin cans & string

    This shows how silly this really is.
    Quigs
  • RE: AT&T cries foul to FCC, uses Google Voice to spark Net Neutrality debat

    As someone who uses Google Voice for my business line
    I'm a bit confused over this whole thing. I still have AT&T
    as my service provider for my iPhone, and the minutes still
    tick away when I'm on a call that is placed through my
    Google Voice and redirected to my iPhone. AT&T's bigger
    problem is that they couldn't figure out how to offer this
    service to me. I asked them a number of times to have
    multiple phone numbers that all went to the same handset
    and they kept saying nope you need a new handset for
    each number, so I found an alternative that worked for
    what I wanted, and was able to dump the second handset.
    As for blocking certain calls AT&T needs to do this. I
    cannot tell you the number of times that I have called back
    a number (generally someone pretending to be a customer
    on my business phone) only to get my phone bill and find
    out that the number was costing me $595 per minute (no
    that's not a mistake), and spent hours on the phone with
    AT&T because I had a $4000 phone bill I was refusing to
    pay. Maybe if AT&T cared about keeping their customers
    more than getting new customers then they wouldn't be
    crying in their Wheaties every time someone came up with
    a better option.
    I can tell you one thing the second the iPhone is
    untethered from AT&T I'm jumping ship on my cell as well.

    Please refrain from telling me the iPhone sucks, I like it, it
    works for me, and I'm not a fan of the Blackberry.
    Amonra
  • RE: AT&T cries foul to FCC, uses Google Voice to spark Net Neutrality debat

    AT&T and Verizon for that matter will do anything, say
    anything to prevent net neutrality on their cellular
    networks.

    They seem to think that the $30+ we pay them monthly
    for internet access isn't enough for us to decide how we
    want to use our internet access. These companies are
    charging as much or more in some cases as cable/dsl
    internet access and I for one am glad the FCC is going
    after them.

    Neither of these companies are trustworthy or have the
    best interest of the consumer in mind.

    "AT&T strongly emphasizes that the existing Internet
    principles are serving consumers well in their current
    form..." really? Let's take a poll as see if the customers
    agree.
    Masari.Jones
  • Invitation ONLY...

    Google Voice's service right now is invitation-only. I would think that means that all of this crap would be null and void. The way I see, Google is more or less launching this project to test it. When they open the service to the public, then I can see this being a debate. At that time, if Google continues to block certain calls, I could see that if it wasn't illegal, it would be bad business. Until then, I see this entire issue as moot, null, and void.
    sailor_0703
  • RE: AT&T cries foul to FCC, uses Google Voice to spark Net Neutrality debate

    "....to impose Net Neutrality rules to create a open-access Internet, rules that would force ISPs like AT&T to open those pipelines and let Web surfers do whatever they want, even if it?s data-heavy activities like streaming video."

    IMHO this is why the ISP's are fighting Net Neutrality. They would have to upgrade their current infrastructures. This would cost millions if not billions of dollars on the short term but in the long run would possibly make them money if upgraded correctly. The whole fight against Net Neutrality is all about money. Big business wants to just make money on what is already in place and limit user bandwidth on tiered pay systems and by filtering instead of making a better internet for users. They see Net Neutrality as a threat to their current business model by making them upgrade systems to compete for customers.
    jsaddison@...