AT&T Takes Aim at Google Voice

It was only a matter of time until AT&T jumped into the fight over Google Voice. As The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, AT&T sent a letter to the FCC on Friday alleging that because Google Voice does not connect calls to certain numbers, Google’s service violates FCC regulations governing phone carriers. The AT&T letter also accuses Google of violating the FCC’s “net neutrality” rules by blocking certain calls. AT&T’s arguments, however, are flawed for multiple reasons.

First, Google Voice is not a telephone provider in the traditional sense. Instead, the service is an internet-powered bridge between calls made via traditional carriers. To use Google Voice, one needs phone service provided by a regulated provider, such as AT&T or Verizon. Calls placed or received via a user’s Google Voice number are connected to the user’s existing phone lines. Therefore, a Google Voice user can access the restricted numbers, such as conference calling services and adult chat lines, using the same lines one accesses Google Voice with, albeit outside of the Google Voice service. Also, as Google states in the Terms of Service for Google Voice, calls made and received through the service are carried by regulated telecommunications providers licensed as partners with Google. Further bolstering Google’s argument that it is not subject to the FCC’s common carrier rules, the Google Voice service is currently available on a limited basis, by invitation only. Considering the differences between a traditional phone company and Google Voice, it seems that the Google Voice service does not fall under the FCC’s regulations regarding telecommunications providers.

AT&T’s second argument against Google Voice relies on an overly-broad interpretation of the FCC’s rules regarding “net neutrality.” Generally speaking, internet service providers are required to treat all legal traffic on its networks equally, meaning YouTube videos and iTunes downloads are handled with the same speed and importance as financial transactions sent by banks or requests for pages from CNN’s website. Essentially, broadband providers cannot discriminate between customers’ traffic, regardless of how important or unimportant the content is.

In its letter to the FCC, AT&T alleges that by not connecting calls to certain numbers via its web interface, Google Voice violates net neutrality rules by giving certain calls priority on its service while blocking others. However, as Google points out in its response posted to its Public Policy blog, Google is not operating as a network provider. Instead, it is an application or service provider, just like Flickr or Hulu. Following AT&T’s interpretation of net neutrality principles, Hulu could be considered to violate the rules because only content from certain television networks is available. Similarly, Flickr could be construed to violate the rules because the service limits how many photos one can upload to the service. Such is not the case, however, because Flickr and Hulu are web-based services. In order to utilize these services, one needs a broadband connection from an internet service provider such as Comcast or AT&T; because both internet providers are subject to net neutrality rules, neither company can restrict one’s access to services such as Flickr, Hulu, or Google Voice, but the services themselves can define what features they make available. In fact, the FCC’s net neutrality framework clearly states that it applies only to “providers of telecommunications for Internet access or Internet Protocol-enabled (IP-enabled) services,” not the providers of the IP-enabled services themselves.

In its complaint to the FCC, AT&T relies on either flawed or overly-broad interpretations of FCC rules to argue that Google’s Voice service violates telecommunications and broadband regulations. Given the broad implications of an FCC finding in favor of AT&T, including regulatory authority over services ranging from YouTube to Flickr, one can only hope that the FCC will see the errors in AT&T’s logic and dismiss the complaint.