October 9, 2009

FCC Called On To Settle Google Voice App Debate

The Federal Communications Commission has been called on by a group of Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives to investigate Google Inc.'s ability to block calls to rural telephone exchanges.

Google's Voice service is a part of a popular debate between the company and Apple Inc. over why the application is not available on the popular iPhone.

AT&T Inc., which is the exclusive service provider for the iPhone in the U.S., has argued that Google would have an unfair advantage if Google's Voice service were not subject to the same rules that are applied to other phone operators.

Google said that Apple rejected the app. However, Apple said that it was still looking at the application because it alters the iPhone's telephone functionality and user interface.

"We are formally requesting an investigation by the FCC into the nature and function of Google's voice service," the lawmakers wrote in an October 7 letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment on the letter.  The FCC has already asked for more information regarding the matter from Google, Apple and AT&T.

AT&T said that the Google Voice applications was blocking costly calls to phone numbers in certain rural areas in order to cut down on expenses.  Phone companies are not allowed to block calls.

On Thursday, an AT&T spokesperson said that when policymakers collect the data, they determine whether or not Google's service is a "double-standard."

The FCC told carriers in 2007 that they cannot restrict calls to avoid fees associated with adult chat lines or free conference calls by companies routing calls through rural carriers in order to generate fees.

Ross Buntrock, an attorney for some rural carries, filed a letter on October 1 with the FCC to complain that AT&T is refusing to pay its bills to rural 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 the (local carriers) are forced to incur the costs of terminating AT&T's customers' traffic," Buntrock wrote.

A spokesperson for Google said on Thursday that AT&T would be "the height of cynicism" if it was to invoke rural America while the carrier is behind in its payments to rural carriers.

Google said that it is not a traditional phone service because it is a Web software tool; therefore it should not be regulated like other telephone companies.

The 20 lawmakers, including House Energy Commerce Committee members Steve Buyer and Charlie Melancon, said in a letter that they find Google's position "ill conceived and unfair to our rural constituents."

They also said that they are concerned that the market and support for universal service will be undermined if Google is allowed to operate its telephone service outside the rules that help govern other service providers.

"A company should be able to evade compliance with important principles of access and competition set forth by the FCC by simply self-declaring it is not subject to them without further investigation," the lawmakers wrote.


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