AT&T Blasts Google for Possible FCC Violations

AT&T, still smarting from all the flak it took over the Google Voice rejection from the App Store*, fired off a letter to the FCC on Friday, charging Google with violating FCC regulations by blocking calls to certain rural areas from its Google Voice service. Google Voice, currently invitation only, allows users to connect all of their phone numbers, wireless or landline, to one common number and manage the calls and messages through a Web site or by calling the number itself and accessing functions through a phone interface. According to AT&T, Google blocks calls to certain rural communities, something telecommunications companies cannot do; they are required to provide equal access despite the fact that some rural companies may charge high access fees to reach certain customers.

Robert Quinn, AT&T's senior vice president for federal regulatory affairs, said:
Google Voice has claimed for itself a significant advantage over providers offering competing services. By openly flaunting the call blocking prohibition that applies to its competitors, Google is acting in a manner inconsistent with the spirit, if not the letter, of the FCC’s fourth principle contained in its Internet Policy Statement. Ironically, Google is also flouting the so-called ‘fifth principle of non-discrimination’ for which Google has so fervently advocated.

Google, on the other hand, responded quickly to AT&T's letter, and reminded all that it's not a traditional telecommunications company. Once again, as with many rules and regulations written for days when people were lucky to have radios, much less HDTVs, times they are a-changin' and the old rules need rewriting, or at least, another look.

In a blog post, Richard Whitt, Google's Washington Telecom and Media Counsel admitted that Google does block some of these calls. The reason is as I outlined above: some of these rural carriers charge egregious rates, and Google has chosen to block these. He added the follow differences between Google and traditional telecoms:
  • 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.
It's hard to fault the argument that the service is free. And to be honest, AT&T is no fan of Google Voice anyway, which is why some feel it had a hand in its App Store rejection. The only thing easily predictable about this is that it isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

* Which it may or may not have had anything to do with, and which may or may not actually have been rejected, depending on whom you ask