Lawmakers ask FCC to investigate Google Voice

The fight over Google's Google Voice application intensified after a bipartisan group of House lawmakers representing rural areas asked the FCC to formally investigate the service. They want the commission to open an inquiry into whether Google Voice is a traditional phone service and should be regulated for blocking calls to rural areas due to high access charges. However, Google has hit back at its chief antagonist in the fight, AT&T, and has said that the carrier is guilty of not paying access charges.

The lawmakers' letter comes less than two weeks after AT&T asked the FCC to look into the issue. The carrier said that by "openly flaunting the call blocking prohibition that applies to its competitors," Google is violating the FCC's fourth net neutrality principle, which says that "consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers and content providers."

"We understand Google has asserted Google Voice is not a 'traditional' telephone service--despite its use of 10-digit telephone numbers and its ability to connect calls between telephones through a local exchange carrier," the lawmakers said in the letter. "Instead, Google maintains it out to be allowed to block calls to rural telephone exchanges--a position we find ill conceived and unfair to our rural constituents."

Google acknowledged that it does restrict certain outbound calls to certain high-priced destinations. But, the company said at the time that AT&T was trying to blur the distinction between a traditional phone service and Google Voice, and noted that Google Voice is a free software service and not intended to replace traditional phone service.

Meanwhile, in response to AT&T's original letter, a lawyer representing two South Dakota-based local phone companies--Northern Valley Communications and Sancom--shot off his own letter to the FCC, and argued that AT&T was engaging in improper practices. The lawyer, Ross Buntrock, an attorney with the firm Arent Fox in Washington, D.C., said that AT&T was withholding payments to local exchange carriers.

"The only difference between Google's alleged call blocking and AT&T's refusal to pay terminating access charges for conference and chat-line calls is that [local exchange carriers] are forced to incur the costs of terminating AT&T's customers' traffic," he wrote in his Oct. 1 letter.

Google, meanwhile, said that AT&T was being hypocritical in the whole matter. "For AT&T to invoke rural America to seek common carriage regulation of online applications, while rural carriers say AT&T isn't even paying its bills, is the height of cynicism," Google spokesman Dan Martin said in a statement. "The fact is, we agree that the FCC needs to fix the current rules for compensating phone carriers."

An FCC spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

For more:
- see the letter
- see this Dow Jones Newswires article (sub. req.)

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