Google VoiceAT&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.

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9 thoughts on “AT&T Picks a Fight With Google Voice, Cites Rural Example

  1. Personally, I'm glad to see AT&T take on Google. They may have questionable motives, but fundementally, Google and companies like them shouldn't continue to get a free ride and write their own rules.

  2. this is a classic case of be careful what you ask for. By dragging access into this argument, you open up a can of worms that could mean significant changes to the system. i think everyone agrees the system needs changing, but be careful what you ask for.

  3. It's ironic to hear AT&T argue in favor or terminating access. AT&T recently proposed access reform guidelines which would reduce terminating access to such a tiny amount as to essentially eliminate it. Why? They pay an awful lot to rural carriers for terminating access.

    It's also interesting to observe AT&T (and other large cellular carriers) battle Google by trying to block soft phone applications like Google Voice and Skype. Those applications use the cell carrier's data network to carry voice conversations to save (or eliminate) using voice minutes.

    This battle exemplifies two important things. 1) Our telecommunications regulatory structure is horribly antiquated and utterly fails to address the technical realities of communications networks and consumer demands, and 2) the "net neutrality" debate is full of opportunistic spin. A lot of big players with a lot of money to lose are taking sides and putting a hefty spin to their arguments (sometimes in opposition to other positions the same company is taking on another, carefully defined aspect of net neutrality).

    My $0.02? Either make any company that transmits packets (voice, data, video, or whatever) pay a set amount per bit, thereby leveling the playing field, or, better yet, eliminate all access charges and intercarrier compensation. The carriers would need to transition their business models to earn revenue from consumers and / or advertisers, and would need to charge for network usage without archaic remuneration schemes and regulatory subsidies. This would have to be phased in as it would be catastrophic to a number of small, rural carriers to implement quickly.

    If you have kids who are planning on going to college, encourage them to study telecom law. There is tremendous job security for a long time.

  4. For those of you that think we should just eliminate termination fees… you are crazy.

    The PSTN is filed tariff per minute network… no ifs ands or buts! Each local carrier on the PSTN has a tariff and to gain access to their network. Every carrier wanting to terminate a call on that network has to pay the tariff based on how many minutes their customer uses.

    I like the guys that say we should just eliminate intercarrier compensation. Probably the same guys that came up with the Unlimited Long Distance marketing idea. Selling unlimited access to a network they don't own or operate.

    Why can't it be just like the IP network and be sold in an All You Can Eat one price plan. Because the IP network is an All You Can Eat network the PSTN is not.

  5. I also like the term Traffic Pumper when used about a conferencing company. Conferencing companies receive traffic not pump traffic. The real traffic pumpers are the customers of the Unlimited Long Distance plans who are desensitized to price and time.

    Unlimited Long Distance Plans attract high volume users, entice them to use more and desensitize their users to the pain of a per minute network (the PSTN).

    If the users had to pay the cost associated with places they were calling they would only use the conferencing companies located in lower cost exchanges and thus market forces would control where the so called Traffic Pumpers would operate. Boom ATT has no more problems if they price to cost instead of to the competition.

  6. Google on the other hand is interesting. They are paying to connect calls for their users out of their own pockets and giving the service away for FREE. The reason they are blocking the calls to conferencing companies is because they cost more- if they weren't paying for connecting the calls they wouldn't be blocking them. Which means that Google is getting people to give up some of their phone service to use Google service for free and I believe that is an Anti-Trust issue.

    What funny about this whole thing is ATT is connecting the call to the conferencing companies but is not paying for the service because they do direct interconnect. ATT know that Google uses and would have to pay them for every call connected. So ATT is saying make Google connect because we are but they are not saying they are not paying for those connection which would put the so called competitive advantage back to ATT.

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