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AT&T Distracting FCC With Google Voice Vice

It appears that the Federal Communications Commission isn't immune to industry pressure after all.

Michael Hickins

October 9, 2009

3 Min Read

It appears that the Federal Communications Commission isn't immune to industry pressure after all.The FCC is caving in to demands from AT&T, and the behemoth carrier's allies in Congress, to investigate Google's policies when it comes to blocking certain calls on Google Voice. And in fairness, Google's hands are anything but clean.

Google's policy for the Google Voice application is very simple, and like many things that seem even-handed on the surface, very unfair to the weakest kids in the playground. It all goes back to the idea that whether we're talking electricity, roads, telecommunications or (talk about a hot-button issue) broadband, rural areas are typically under-served unless some form of regulatory assistance is enacted to protect them.

So in order to subsidize rural communications, calls going in or out (or both) of certain under-served areas result in a surcharge that larger incumbent carriers are supposed to pay to the smaller, regional carriers. So, for instance, AT&T is supposed to send subsidies to the likes of Northern Valley Communications (I say "supposed to" because NVC has pointed out that AT&T isn't being very punctual when it comes to paying its bills. As I said, the weakest kid always gets the shaft).

Similar surcharges are due for 900- type calls such as sex hotlines and the like.

Google's policy is it won't allow calls to any number that results in a surcharge, and doesn't differentiate between calls to 1-900-Please-Me and calls to Grandma Moses in Shucksville. And, Google says, because it's not a telco, the obligation doesn't apply to it.

That's probably right as far as the letter of the law is concerned, but that game is getting pretty tiresome. We all know what certain rules are intended to do -- and while Google isn't a telco, we're either all in this together or we're not.

As a technology company, Google stands on the shoulders of giants, but also on the shoulders of every taxpayer who chipped in to build the roads, electrification and other infrastructure that makes it possible for users to search for goods and products in Shucksville and for local businesses to charge online customers by using Google Checkout.

In other words, none of us got here without a lot of people signing the social contract.

Of course, AT&T isn't trying to help those folks in Shucksville either (as their poor payment history amply illustrates). AT&T is simply creating a circus in the hopes of distracting the FCC, vitiating net neutrality rules and, it hopes, then persuading Congress that no new laws are needed either.

But the truth is that we do need net neutrality legislation to protect rural communities, consumers and small business owners. There's no argument here that those rules will hurt the likes of AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Comcast and a dozen other companies. But that doesn't mean the rules are bad for business. They're bad for BIG business -- for those dozen companies.

If those businesses have their way, they'll be able to continue trampling small businesses, preventing competitors with faster download speeds and lower prices from jumping into the market, without having to worry about innovating. AT&T and its allies are trying to turn the net neutrality debate into an argument that pits free markets against regulation, but the debate is actually about big business versus all business.

As Craig Settles, a broadband consultant, primarily to local and regional governments, told me

The Google Voice issue is a lot of noise to hide the fact that AT&T is trying to kill net neutrality. But while it's a manufactured crisis, the underlying and very real message is that both these characters have tainted hands-and the real issue is whether the net is going to continue to provide a non-discriminatory, unbiased flow of information and applications.

Google could help clarify the debate by cleansing its hands, reversing its wrong-headed policy, and allowing everyone to get back to discussing the real issue, which is enforcing a level playing field for all, including the weakest kids in the schoolyard.

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