AT&T accuses Google of violating telecom law

In a letter to the FCC, AT&T says Google Voice blocks calls to some rural areas -- a cost-saving measure that traditional carriers are prohibited from using

AT&T has accused Google of violating the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules by blocking Google Voice calls to some rural areas.

In a letter to the FCC, the carrier said Google is claiming an advantage over other telecommunications providers by blocking calls, a cost-saving measure that traditional carriers are prohibited from using. "We urge the Commission to level the playing field and order Google to play by the same rules as its competitors," wrote Robert Quinn, a senior vice president for AT&T's federal regulatory issues, in a letter to the FCC.

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The letter came at a heated moment both for net neutrality and for the Google Voice service. Last week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski kicked off an effort to formalize the four net neutrality principles in the agency's Internet Policy Statement and add two more, covering non-discrimination and transparency.

Google Voice creates a single number that works across all of a user's phones. That number can be used to make calls and send and receive text messages, and the software also includes tools for managing voicemail. Google recently submitted the application for approval in Apple's iPhone store. The two are disputing what happened next, with the search giant saying that the application was rejected and Apple insisting it is still considering it.

Google systematically blocks calls to certain areas from consumers using Google Voice, AT&T said, citing press reports. By doing this, Google can reduce its access expenses, according to AT&T. The FCC in 2007 prohibited traditional carriers from blocking calls because it said the practice might degrade the reliability of telecommunications networks, Quinn wrote.

AT&T charges that Google's call blocking violates the fourth principle of the FCC's Internet Policy Statement, which says consumers should be able to reap the benefits of competition among network, application, service and content providers. Though Google has claimed that Google Voice is not a traditional phone service, it effectively is, AT&T says. And even if it's an application and not a phone service, Google Voice is still governed by that principle because it covers application providers, the letter said.

The carrier also accused Google of violating a proposed fifth principle, on nondiscrimination, which says one provider can't block fair access to another. Google itself is discriminating when it blocks calls to certain local exchange carriers, AT&T said.

Local phone companies charge long-distance service providers for originating and terminating calls to and from their networks. Some small rural carriers charge higher-than-usual rates, in some cases using revenue-sharing deals with call centers or other operations that draw in many long-distance calls. Traditional carriers are required to connect these calls despite the high charges.

In a blog entry, Google acknowledged that Google Voice restricts some calls to those areas but said it isn't bound by the laws that force traditional carriers to connect those calls. Google Voice isn't intended to be a replacement for traditional phone service and requires a wired or wireless line from an operator, wrote Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel. That means Google Voice users can still make calls to any location on the regular phone line. In addition, it's not a telecommunications service but a Web-based application, and is available only by invitation, he wrote.

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

Free Press, a group that has pushed for stronger net neutrality protections, said those rules apply only to Internet access providers and not to applications such as Google Voice. AT&T's letter "appears to be a political stunt to distract attention from the important work the FCC has begun on Network Neutrality," Free Press said in a statement.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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