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

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.

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