AT&T has written a letter to the FCC complaining that Google’s Google Voice application is in violation of FCC net neutrality principles. The complaint highlights the growing divide between traditional telecom carriers like AT&T and Internet app enablers like Google, who are increasing competing with each other, both directly and indirectly.
AT&T argues Google and others are ‘gaming’ the system and should be subject to the same regulatory requirements as common carriers. Beyond the common carrier argument AT&T also suggests that Google is violating certain FCC principles of network neutrality. In so doing, AT&T is attempting to call Google a hypocrite, since Google has historically favored an ‘open Internet.’ Google argues that the issues that AT&T raises are specific to common carrier requirements, of which they are not one, and thus not subject to.
The core of AT&T’s argument revolves around Google’s attempt to limit terminating calls in rural markets, saving the access fees associated with those calls. They state that “…Google is systematically blocking telephone calls from consumers that use Google Voice to call telephone numbers in certain rural communities.” It’s a claim that Google does not deny, alluding to it in their public policy blog. Unfortunately, in the context of this argument, it appears as if all terminating access is getting painted with the ‘traffic pumping’ brush, where certain conference calling services have been utilizing high terminating access charges for revenue generation. Not only is AT&T using this action to try to address Google Voice, but also to raise the awareness of terminating access charges and hoping to “level the playing field” for all. For carriers that have terminating access but don’t use ‘traffic pumping,’ what does that level playing field look like?
Beyond common carrier arguments, AT&T also cites the FCC’s own Internet Policy Statement which states “consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.” Under those principles, Google should not be allowed to pick and choose where consumers can call using Google Voice, says AT&T. They equate the practice to ‘call blocking.’ Google argues that Google Voice is a free application that needs an underlying common carrier to function, and therefore is not subject to common carrier or the FCC’s open Internet principles. Google argues that the FCC open Internet principles “…apply only to the behavior of broadband carriers — not the creators of Web-based software applications.”
Implications for this argument are all over the map. It exposes a plethora of controversial issues beyond just AT&T and Google. It also demonstrates the complex nature of our current communications laws and policies, especially when put into the context of the evolving competitive landscape and all of the different players it empowers.
Net neutrality is not just about an open Internet. Its debate will drag in other important issues of intercarrier compensation, access reform, and universal service. This case is a great leading indicator of that. There will be winners and losers in this debate. Carriers of all sizes and types should pay attention and prepare for the worst, yet hope for the best.