Congress demands FCC probe of Google Voice

A bipartisan Congressional group has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to investigate Google’s alleged policy of blocking high-cost calls to rural areas. According to Reuters, the legislators described Google’s position as “ill conceived and unfair to our rural constituents.”

The group of lawmakers, which include Republican Steve Buyer and Democrat Charlie Melancon, also demanded that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski examine the “nature and function of Google Inc’s voice service.”

As TG Daily previously reported, AT&T recently accused Google of “systematically” banning telephone calls to certain rural areas. The controversial strategy has apparently allowed Google Voice to claim a “significant advantage” over providers offering competing services.

“By blocking these calls, Google is able to reduce its access expenses,” AT&T’s Robert W. Quinn wrote in an official letter to the FCC. “Other providers, including those with which Google Voice competes, are banned from call blocking because in June 2007, the Wireline Competition Bureau emphatically declared that all carriers are prohibited from pursuing ‘self help actions such as call blocking.'”

Quinn also insisted that Google was “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,” opined Quinn.

However, Google legal counsel Richard Whitt contended that the FCC’s open Internet principles apply only to the behavior of broadband carriers – and not to the creators of Web-based software applications.

“Google Voice’s goal is to provide consumers with free or low-cost access to as many advanced communications features as possible. In order to do this, Google Voice does restrict certain outbound calls from our Web platform to these high-priced destinations,” Whitt wrote in an official blog post. “But despite AT&T’s efforts to blur the distinctions between Google Voice and traditional phone service, there are many significant differences.”

Whitt explained that Google Voice could not be considered a traditional carrier and therefore remains exempt from common carrier laws. In addition, Whit claimed that Google Voice is “not intended” to be a replacement for traditional phone services – as the service required an existing land or wireless line.

“AT&T is trying to make this about Google’s support for an open Internet, but the comparison just doesn’t fly. Even though the FCC does not have jurisdiction over how software applications function, AT&T apparently wants to use the regulatory process to undermine Web-based competition and innovation. 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,” added Whitt.