Friday, September 25, 2009

Response to AT&T's letter to FCC on Google Voice



This afternoon AT&T filed a letter with the Federal Communications Commission, alleging that Google Voice is preventing its users from making outbound calls to certain phone numbers with inflated access charges, and asking the Commission to intervene.

Here's the quick background: Local telephone carriers charge long-distance companies for originating and terminating calls to and from their networks. Certain local carriers in rural areas charge AT&T and other long-distance companies especially high rates to connect calls to their networks. Sometimes these local carriers partner and share revenue with adult chat services, conference calling centers, party lines, and others that are able to attract lots of incoming phone calls to their networks.

Under the common carrier laws, AT&T and other traditional phone companies are required to connect these calls. In the past they've argued that these rural carriers are abusing the system to "establish grossly excessive access charges under false pretenses," and to "offer kickbacks to operators of pornographic chat lines and other calling services." (This is a complicated issue, but these articles from USA Today and the Associated Press explain it well.)

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.

So how does any of this relate to Google Voice?

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. But despite AT&T's efforts to blur the distinctions between Google Voice and traditional phone service, there are many significant differences:
  • Unlike traditional carriers, Google Voice is a free, Web-based software application, and so not subject to common carrier laws.
  • Google Voice is not intended to be a replacement for traditional phone service -- in fact, you need an existing land or wireless line in order to use it. Importantly, users are still able to make outbound calls on any other phone device.
  • Google Voice is currently invitation-only, serving a limited number of users.
AT&T is trying to make this about Google's support for an open Internet, but the comparison just doesn't fly. The FCC's open Internet principles apply only to the behavior of broadband carriers -- not the creators of Web-based software applications. 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.

* Note: This blog post was updated at 4:55 PM ET to clarify the FCC's open Internet principles.

40 comments:

Vishnu Gopal said...

"The FCC's open Internet principles apply only to the behavior of broadband carriers -- not the creators of Web-based software applications."

Not to sound offensive, but that sentence does sound a bit disingenuous doesn't it? Open Internet doesn't apply to web-based software applications? What should it apply to then?

The EAM-Dude said...

So why was it now again that Google complained to the FCC about Apple?

David said...

Richard,

In my conversation this week with staff at the FCC WCB (memorialized here: http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/prod/ecfs/retrieve.cgi?native_or_pdf=pdf&id_document=7020039002) I contended that while GoogleVoice blocks calls to certain destinations with high access charges, the service itself, with its carrier partners, also BENEFITS from access charges. When somebody calls a GoogleVoice number, you (or more specifically your carrier partner) collect an access charge that is typically higher than what would be paid for direct termination to, for example, a mobile phone (but not as egregious as the rural rates used by the FreeConferencers).

So while you say your service is "free," I contend that you are in fact riding on the backs of everybody that pays access charges (inter-exchange carriers, their service-provider customers, and the users of the PSTN generally).

Can you correct me on this if I'm mistaken, please?

To rectify both sides of this, would you be supportive of the ELIMINATION of access charges for calls that connect only to an intermediate or mechanized service (such as GoogleVoice or a conference bridge) as opposed to a real human over physical access facilities for which the carrier has financial responsibility?

BDecker19 said...

Interesting. As software, GV isn't in the dangerous position of (gov authorized)monopoly/pseudo monopoly that pipes operators are. it is still though a gatekeeper over (and potential bottleneck of) information transit, and as such, shouldI believe be subject to at least some of the requirements of net neutrality principles... no?

Robbie Coleman said...

I'm sooooo glad you guys have the deep pockets for the legal mumbo jumbo swirling around this. I hope we can finally overcome the old regime of telcos and have services we want at prices that are fair and competitive.

Stick it to 'em Google!!

Thanks!

Darkmane said...

So, while I agree on a legal stand point and agree with all the reasons you list why the impact is minimal, I have to say that the fact that you are emulating the general functionality of one common carrier service on top of another service that you are arguing should also be another common carrier, then you should probably act as a common carrier.

I say this as a Google Voice user.

To be more clear, the argument that Web based application should not be treated as common carriers works when you are talking about EBay, Craigs List or Gmail. None of these reproduce the service of a common carrier.

However since Google Voice, Skype and any other VoIP system are almost wholly reproducing the functionality of a common carrier (Caller ID and 911 being the only things I can think are missing), they should as much as possible adhere to the same rules. I'm sure that the other common carriers feel your pain and would be more sympathetic in areas where you disagree if they felt you were competing on an equal footing here.

Cheese Lover Bob said...

AT&T is just trying to slander other people when they're caught red-handed, like the kid who always blamed his little sister when his hand was caught in the cookie jar. That's all there is to it.

Robert S. Kissel said...

A Question:

As one of the lucky invitees to Google Voice, I should like to know if there is a list, somewhere, of the area codes and exchanges that are NOT accessible via Google Voice. Can anyone direct me to such a list?

I'm very glad I read this entry on Google's Public Policy Blog: it clarified the issue for me, finally. I was very puzzled by the reports I read in the newspapers, but now I understand at least the SUBSTANCE (if you can call it that!) of AT&T's complaint.

I *do* wish people would stop giving so much despotic power to government agencies: this sort of "it's duck season, so shoot him now!" business of companies of grown-ups trying to turn persnickety regulations into weapons they can use against one another is quite sickening, I think.

Dan Lewis said...

Google Voice isn't a common carrier any more than the World Wide Web is the fiber optic backbone. GV is built on top of a network that should rightly be unrestricted, but it can restrict its users in whatever ways it wants to. It's not illegal to ship broken software or to refuse to accept American Express.

If you don't like the behavior of GV, you can leave it and use your iPhone or G1 dialer, or get a rotary phone. Contrast this with the common carriers. If you tried to leave, there'd be no place to go.

brandon said...

The solution seems quite simple. Don't designate any areas as "rural," base the rates on call volume.

If these rural carriers decide to partner with free adult chat lines, their call volume will spike and they will get less revenue for ALL calls.

The problem would fix itself in a matter of weeks. Google nor ATT/Verizon would need or want to block these exchanges.

Matt Lawson said...

OMG! AT&T why dont you try and innovate? Does the CEO and Chairman even have Email?

Stop all the bullsh*t and create a big conference at some nice big convention center. Create a powerful API to your network and charge money for people to access your API. Allow software developers and the Google's to create cool stuff to work with your network? Get into the modern times and create some cool stuff!!!

If you need I run a 180 person development team in Sanya, Hainan China and can help you create anything you want. INNOVATE! Stop complaining!

Love ya!

Dan said...

Bon chance google!

cameron7 said...

It's a very sad story, to see that poor little AT&T has to pay these high rates. Is it ironic (to say the least) that it's entirely possible these high rates are part of what have helped keep AT&T and the Baby Bells in their Oligarchy of power? Large corporations love to play the victim, that is until a competitor comes along and threatens their supremacy.

CJ Millisock said...

AT&T should be happy that Google isn't letting GV users connect to those expensive networks. Google and AT&T are essentially on the same side, with the local phone companies on the other side.

Am I right? Why would AT&T benefit if Google was forced to allow GV users to connect to those expensive networks?

I still don't understand why AT&T doesn't like Google Voice. They don't compete at all. Google Voice is not VOIP.

Pranay Manocha said...

Valid or not, this tactic has clearly been implemented by AT&T to complicate the matter and distract the FCC from doing its job. AT&T is annoyed that someone else can come and end up profiting more from its users than it itself does.

This is a survival tactic run by a big corporation mindset. Poor AT&T. Little do they know that even if they win this legal battle, they've just diminished their brand value a hundred-fold.

deaniac83 said...

I did not know that Google blocks calls to certain numbers because of these high charges. I agree on the legal analysis here, and that GV, a free service, should not be forced to connect to these high cost areas. I mean, I think even AT&T could be forgiven for following suit if they gave everyone on their network free unlimited minutes. Heh.

But the FCC does need to get on this case and stop these abuses.

Now let's talk about AT&T crying about Net Neutrality rules. Net Neutrality simply says that you must treat all legal internet traffic the same. That's it. They can limit the bandwidth overall (as they currently do) but as long as a user is within their bandwidth limits, they have to treat all traffic the same. It has NOTHING to do with anyone having to pay anyone for origination or termination of anything. I'm sure AT&T will correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think ISP's have to pay content providers for their content arriving on my laptop connected to AT&T's DSL service.

danm said...

As a Google Voice customer, I certainly think of it in a similar way to a traditional common carrier or, at the least, a "traditional" VOIP carrier. Other VOIP carriers are subject to the same restrictions as wireline carriers, since they offer the same service. Nothing prevents Google from passing along the higher access fees to their customers when connecting to specific local exchanges. It's Google's choice to market their service as being able to connect to any US phone line. To block that access without any option around that is wrong. To market a service connecting the entire US, then block certain access is wrong.

The FCC has juristiction over common carriers to prevent customers from unilaterally being cut off (particularly those in rural areas). This is to both level the playing field and to prevent certain parts of our country from being cut off from basic telecommunications services. Google is treading a very thin line right now against that regulation. If the FCC allows Google to bypass some of the more onerous common carrier rules, they are setting a bad precedent which may eventually lead to all common carriers abandoning rural areas, a situation we should not all.

Yzark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Moorthy said...

While AT&T might suck at not being innovative and a crying baby but I believe AT&T has a point here. If you let a person make a call from point A to point B, I see you as a phone carrier it does not matter how it is provided, you are in that space and you should abide by FCC rule. It is like having different rules for Land and Wireless phone, which would not make sense. The feature (free calls) Google provides is by their choice that does not give them the authority to infringe on the FCC regulation. I would ask Google to provide free calls but don't break the rules. I believe Google should abide by same FCC regulations.

imse4n said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
imse4n said...

AT&T's hypocrisy is nauseating. I personally love AT&T and Google and Apple, but this whole mess is ridiculous. Why not just let the market decide which services we are to use? Let Google Voice on the iPhone and see what happens.

Seriously, wouldn't AT&T welcome any relief to their network, which at present cannot keep up with simple consumer demand?

Jon Watte said...

Quote: "It is like having different rules for Land and Wireless phone, which would not make sense."

Wireless and wired phones already have different rules. Try exercising your right to choose any long-distance carrier for your cell phone, and see how far you get.

The real problem is the unintended consequence of high termination charges and kick-backs, that stems from the common carrier regulation. If that problem could be removed, Google and AT&T would be in agreement. That seems like a better approach to take.

ryan said...

The big difference here is that google's service is free while AT&T's is NOT. And no you can't just say "well I pay for the internet" because google receives none of that money! As a free service they should be allowed to do as they please. Also another difference is that is that controlling individual apps is not what the FCC is for, but the fact that the iPhone is more of an OS and that if they can say "NO" then they can give themselves a monopoly, google can not get a momopoly because it is not preventing you from using other apps.

Google stands for what is right, they agree with AT&T and other carriers that the FCC should force prices to be lower. They also are against throttling on the internet. Google's actions are not hypocritical at all!

Rambo 2 said...

If you maintain that GV is software and thus not be subject to governing, then consumers should not expect any privacy nor "anti-wiretapping" protections to apply to their communications using GV. Otherwise, one may extapolate that GV as software does not need to provide 'national' security efforts either.

Rambo 2 said...

If GV, as 'software' does not need to comply with regulations, then don't expect privacy, nor anti-wire tapping laws to protect consumers either. Otherwise 'national' security could be comprimised...

R0GER said...

This is one of several arguments AT&T will bring to thee FCC. Google just gave them (and Apple) yet another argument by issuing a C&D to Cyanogen, an Android ROM developer.

This opens the door for for Apple/AT&T to go back to the FCC and say that they are exactly like Google and there is no merit to the complaint about GoogleVoice.

In my lame person opinion Google made a big legal mistake. Penny wise (win vs Cyanogen), pound foolish (lose vs. Apple/AT&T).

vik said...

Is really annoying that competence can't accept who is on top .. Personally i think is funny how monopoly drives professionals out of the box.as a security analyst , Google services are some of the best things you could get for free.

Mark said...

When the ISPs start charging per byte because they can only be dumb pipes everybody will feel the pain and the biggest users will feel it the most. With flat rate billing these free and almost free services make out like a bandit.
Google needs to keep in mind with out the pipes they can't make any money. If the ISPs make less then they will not and can not improve the last mile.

The Editor said...

While I agree with Google's counterarguments, this is clearly not about network neutrality at all. But... I don't know why Google don't just charge an extra fee for connection to the rural areas, just like they charge for international calls. Is there some reason all GVs US calls have to be free - does this allow them to exploit some regulator loophole? If not then they *should* be highlighting the egregious rural charges and draw the complaints to those common carriers that are really gaming the system.

Ephilei said...

@BDecker G Voice is not a gatekeeper. A gatekeeper is the sole point of entry, but G Voice is not the only way to make a call.

@Vishnu The difference between carriers and software apps are like the different between hardware and software or roads and cars. Laws don't transmit across the two.

@Moorthy G Voice cannot be considered a carrier because it doesn't carry anything. It only connects calls. Google does not "provide calls."

scott said...

"The multiplicity of positions taken by various advocates
makes it hard to define network neutrality with any precision.
Perhaps the easiest definition is the one offered in an op-ed au-
thored by Lawrence Lessig and Robert McChesney, who state
that “[n]et neutrality means simply that all like internet content
must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the net-
work.”

From: 'Network Neutrality, Consumers, and Innovation,' Christopher S. Yoo

Shouldn't the same fairness principle that we are all codifying into rules apply to you just as they will to everyone else?

It's not the point if the service is delivered as hardware or software. If a consumer uses it, then we should all have the same ground rules in the battle over that consumer.

The rules have to be fairly applied in the marketplace or not at all....any other situation is just distorting the purpose of a policy debate to your economic advantage.

SEO Consutlant said...

what is the cost

acousticdryad said...

Google, I would like to try Google Voice. Please accept my request for an invite and I'm sure I will become impressed enough to blog happily about it. Thank you in advance. (and so my comment actually pertains to the article, I agree with Google).

Financial Tools said...

This week we got the mighty Washington Post Op-Ed top spot talking " down and bad " the idea of Net Neutrality , so we know where ATT and Verizon are putting their money,right ?

the smell of money....

this argument must be won by the consumers ,ratepayers and taxpayers at hart , by savings and easy of use , by doctors ,nurses and soldiers using the net and open-source, by students video-conferencing cheap and fast and loving it ,and by professionals making deals with it and saving tons of money, the practical and honest way.

...take Africa ,Latin America and Asia where they want to talk and sing all day and night and they got no money and almost no electricity.... solar systems ,wind turbines and Wi-Fi is the only way, why not push there too ? you got to be the originals...

and always link with Nokia and AMD, plan B just in case ...just look at Larry and his partners at Intel and Qualcomm eating-up the fields...

after all, some neocons at the FCC will stab you in the back for a buck, so better get the P. and the V.P. on the truck ,turn up the music and the broadband and lets get going...

mk said...

Vishnu -- the open net principles, if adopted, will apply to the pipes that bring the Internet to you. At least as envisioned now, they will require the owner of the pipe to act neutrally with respect to the content you access through the pipe.

mk said...

David -- your letter references comments filed in Docket 07-135. I've searched ECFS and I don't find them. Could you provide a link, please?

thanks,

David Frankel said...

mk,

The link is in my post above; here it is again: ZipDX @ FCC ECFS

My most recent presentation is attached in that PDF; others are in ECFS under ZipDX and/or David Frankel. You can email me: dfrankel at zipdx.com if you aren't able to find the items.

Carl S. Ford said...

Net Neutrality: Can Open be Governed?
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has expanded from four to six the principles of freedom associated with Net Neutrality. Now however these principles are now going to be codified into regulatory rules. So the question has to be asked can the concept of “open” be governed. Join us as we look at how these principles will be incorporated into policy. What companies, services and devices will be subject to these rules. And discuss if the jurisdiction of the FCC has to be modified to enable these principles.

Participants include: Todd Daubert of Kelley Drye, Hank Hultquist of AT&T and Rick Whitt of Google.
Join us on Tuesday October 6th, 2009 at 12:30 EST to 1:30 EST as we see if Open can be Governed (http://apps.calliflower.com/conf/show/58623)

Jonathan said...

So why won't Google let us call certain numbers?

Alan Harper said...

If Google would make a telephone system that worked, I would pay for it. But this policy of undermining the competition by offering a free service, and then having a system that doesn't work is the worst of all solutions. I have searched for a Google Voice replacement that actually works, and cannot find it.