FCC opens inquiry of Google Voice

The FCC sent Google a letter Friday afternoon probing the company's Google Voice service, two days after a group of House lawmakers pressed the commission to look into whether the service was blocking calls to certain rural areas.

In the letter to Google, the FCC asked Google for information about Google Voice's functionality, how calls are routed and whether calls are restricted. If calls are restricted, the FCC wants to know how the calls are blocked as well as how Google informs users about any restrictions. Additionally, the commission is seeking information on how Google pays for the service, how many users it has and whether Google considers the service to be a traditional telecommunications service or if it competes with traditional phone services.

The FCC also wants to know how Google determines which numbers are blocked and what third parties Google works with to transmit and connect calls. The commission is seeking responses from Google by Oct. 28.            

The Google Voice application has triggered a firestorm between AT&T and Google. Last month, AT&T asked the FCC to look into the service, and said it was violating both federal call-blocking regulations and net neutrality principles. Google Voice is a free application that allows users one phone number to route calls to multiple phones. Users can also place calls at low rates and manage calls and messages from a website. 

Google concedes that it blocks certain calls in the service, but does so because local phone carriers charge extremely high rates and because they partner with adult chat lines and conference call centers that charge high rates. In a blog post in response to the FCC's letter, Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, said the company could not keep the application free if it paid those rates. Whitt also took aim at AT&T. 

"Some have pointed out that AT&T's complaints are hypocritical given that in the past they have asked the FCC for permission to block calls to these rural areas as well," he wrote. "Why? For exactly the same reasons we restrict them--the exorbitant termination rates. Of course, AT&T charges customers for their services and also receives hundreds of millions of dollars in universal service subsidies.

"AT&T apparently now wants web applications--from Skype to Google Voice--to be treated the same way as traditional phone services," he said in the post on Google's public policy blog. "Their approach is what a former FCC chairman [William Kennard] has called 'regulatory capitalism,' the practice of using regulation to block or slow down innovation. And despite AT&T's lobbying efforts, this issue has nothing to do with network neutrality or rural America. This is about outdated carrier compensation rules that are fundamentally broken and in need of repair by the FCC."  

For more:
- see the FCC's letter to Google
- see Google's public policy blog post

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