Google Voice in Trouble Over Blocked Rural Calls

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A group of lawmakers wants the FCC to investigate Google Voice over charges the service blocks calls to their rural constituents. Such calls are expensive to connect, but landline carriers are prohibited from blocking them.

According to Reuters, a bipartisan group of 20 lawmakers wrote to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski seeking the investigation. AT&T is, not surprisingly, in the middle of things, accusing Google of creating a double standard on net neutrality issues.

Here's the deal: Free teleconferencing, adult chat, and other telephone services often accept calls in rural areas in order to benefit from the high fees carriers pay to connect to those locations. In that way, a free teleconferencing service for consumers is underwritten by the money the carrier pays a rural telco to connect the call.

With the advent of essentially "free" long distance calling, users are happy to call remote locations (it doesn't change what they pay) but carriers are chafing at what they consider a "gaming" of a regulatory system created to support rural telephone service.

Google claims that, as a web-based service, Google Voice should not be regulated as if it were a traditional telephone company. AT&T's position, essentially, is that if Google wants to compete with telcos, it should follow the same rules they do.

The lawmakers' letter arrives on Genachowski's desk as the FCC has already begun looking into Apple's refusal to offer Google Voice to iPhone users. There is also the battle of network neutrality, which has apparently already caused AT&T to reverse course and allow VoIP calling applications, such as Skype, to route calls over its 3G wireless network.

My take: A number of related, yet different, telecom issues are landing at the FCC almost all at once. This provides an excellent chance for a top-to-bottom look at competition and access issues, which the FCC has already begun.

In this case, Google wants to have it both ways. It want to do what a telephone company does, while claiming that because the calls originate from the Internet that it should be exempt from landline-related rules.

Hogwash. The Associated Press "duck rule" applies here: If it looks like, walks like, quacks line… You get the idea. In this case, Google Voice, which is a wonderful free service, looks, acts, and sounds like a telephone company. It should, for the most part, be regulated as such.

Telecom is changing rapidly. Earlier this week, Genachowski warned of a coming shortage of bandwidth for wireless services. This lack of radio frequency spectrum is a pressing issue, which previous FCC auctions of blocks of frequencies have probably made worse.

At the end of the battles, the "new" services and companies, such as VoIP, wireless access, net neutrality, and Google, will likely emerge winners while the traditional telecom heavies, such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, will be forced to adapt.

However, the FCC is known for its ability to cripple new technologies, so these issues deserve close attention, lest Washington again screw-up the future.

David Coursey tweets as @techinciter and can be contacted via his Web site.

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