AT&T vs. Google: More than nuns or adult chat lines

AT&T raised the stakes last week in its recent dust-up with Google over an online voice service, accusing its rival of blocking phone calls to nuns.

As you may know, Google Voice, the in-beta, Web-based calling service, has been blocking calls to some rural telephone exchanges with high access fees.

The fact that Google is blocking some calls is nothing new -- the company's decision has attracted the attention of several U.S. lawmakers from rural states and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission since AT&T first complained about it late last month.

But in a recent filing, AT&T stared giving examples of groups blocked from receiving Google Voice calls: an ambulance service, a church, a day spa, a tribal community college, a U.S. representative's campaign office, and even a convent of Benedictine nuns.

All of this probably cries out for another explanation of access charges. It's complicated, but access charges are what traditional voice carriers charge each other for carrying each other's traffic. Some rural telecom carriers charge high access fees to subsidize the cost of their networks -- in 2007, AT&T complained that some rural carriers were charging other carriers as much as 13 cents a minute. That can add up quickly, especially when many phone customers don't pay per-minute charges for long distance.

It's all perfectly legal, at least so far, but some businesses, namely sex chat lines and free conference-calling services, have taken advantage of the high access charges. They drive traffic to the rural carriers' networks, the rural carrier collects access charges, and the conference-call or sex chat service gets a piece of the action, so to speak.

AT&T, in its recent complaint to the FCC, also seems to put some words in Google's mouth. In a series of "truths" about Google Voice, AT&T says that Google claims it's only blocking calls to sex chat lines and free conference-calling services that take advantage of the high access fees.

That's not quite what Google has said. Google has acknowledged blocking calls to some rural telephone carriers that also partner with sex chat or conference-calling services.

AT&T has complained that Google is playing a little loose with the facts as well. In a blog post Oct. 9, Google telecom counsel Richard Whitt said AT&T has asked the FCC to allow it to block calls to some of the same rural exchanges that Google Voice is blocking.

An AT&T spokesman said the carrier has never asked the FCC for permission to block calls to rural exchanges.

Now, read closely, this gets to be a bit of a fine point. AT&T, in April 2007, did ask the FCC to do something about these so-called traffic-pumping schemes, but it didn't ask the FCC to allow it to block traffic.

However, without asking the FCC, AT&T and another carrier began blocking customers from using free conference-calling services affiliated with rural carriers. Former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, in May 2007, told the two carriers to stop blocking calls.

So there it is -- AT&T is complaining that Google Voice is doing something the carrier is not permitted to do. But there is a bigger question: Does AT&T have a point?

AT&T is basically arguing that Google claims to be neither fish nor fowl. Google says it's not subject to old common carrier rules that require telecom carriers to accept all traffic.

Google Voice is not meant to replace traditional phone service, Google says, and that's probably a legitimate claim. Google Voice is more of a set of calling features, including call forwarding and voice mail, that can be used with other voice services, although it does assign users a new phone number. And the service is in beta and could change.

But Google also seems to be suggesting Google Voice is not subject to net neutrality regulations that it has strongly supported for broadband providers like AT&T. The FCC on Thursday will begin a process of formalizing some net neutrality principles that have been in effect at the agency since 2005.

So far, the focus of net neutrality advocates has been broadband providers. Broadband providers have the power to block or degrade service to Web sites or Web applications they don't want running on their networks, thus the need for rules against such actions, pro-neutrality people say.

But the question AT&T and other opponents of net neutrality rules ask is, "If net neutrality rules exist, shouldn't other Web companies also have to follow them?"

That's a fair question. Is Google acting as a quasi-provider by offering Google Voice? Some VoIP providers allegedly are also blocking calls to sex chat lines and free conference-call services, and the difference between traditional telecom carriers and Web-based voice services has become razor thin.

The lines are ever-shifting, and the FCC has a tough call to make on Google Voice and potentially dozens of other online services.

A larger issue is whether AT&T is using this episode to demonstrate reasons why the FCC or the U.S. Congress shouldn't adopt new net neutrality rules. Many large carriers have suggested the rules aren't needed -- they don't plan to block any traffic.

This can of worms could derail FCC efforts to create formal net neutrality rules. It comes as several groups -- including close to 100 members of Congress, a group of network infrastructure companies, and even the Communications Workers of America -- have expressed concern about net neutrality regulations.

The Google Voice controversy is a distraction, potentially an effective one. It raises a bunch of sticky what-if questions about net neutrality.

The most consistent way for the FCC to resolve the issue is to rule that Google Voice and VoIP providers are subject to net neutrality regulations, and go on to develop the rules. Then, work hard -- and no question, it would be hard work -- to set reasonable limits on access rates.

That course of action would annoy a lot of folks: Google, AT&T, rural carriers, half of Congress, and the phone sex lobby. But it'd make the nuns happy.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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