After from scrutiny from the FCC, AT&T announced that it was allowing for VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) on its 3G networks. Yes, this includes programs like Google Voice on the iPhone. Josh Silverman of Skype lauded AT&T’s move, saying how this is the right step, not only for Skype, but for the Internet in general. Apple was “very happy” too and will add VoIP applications to their App Store.
The FCC—which was investigating AT&T’s competitive (or anti-competitive) actions when it came to (supposedly) blocking Google’s Voice program—will be voting on network neutrality rules at the end of this month. The net neutrality rules would apply to all broadband networks, which include wireless ones. AT&T’s actions, though very beneficial to the cause of network neutrality, come as a big surprise:
AT&T has never been too supportive of net neutrality, being one of the largest ISPs around. However, a few weeks ago, they surprised everyone by claiming that Google—one of the biggest supporters of net neutrality—was being hypocritical.
Google Voice utilizes a system where they block high-cost calls to certain rural telephone numbers. This is because many rural phone companies practice “traffic pumping,” which means that they charge exorbitant amounts of money to connect to these numbers, and they share their revenues with phone sex and conference call lines.
Just a few years ago, AT&T tried blocking calls to these phone numbers, but the FCC said no. AT&T is known as a common carrier, which is a business that is not allowed to discriminate because it carries out a public service (in this case, telephone calls). In AT&T’s eyes, Google Voice is doing the same exact thing that they tried to do—and getting away with it.
So basically, AT&T is calling Google out on not being net neutral, citing the fourth principle of the FCC’s open internet rules (“consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers”). Google Voice either acts as a pseudo-network provider, or it acts as an application—either way, it must abide.
Google responded almost immediately, claiming that those neutrality principles should not apply to Google Voice because: Voice is a free software application (thus no common carrier laws should apply); Voice isn’t replacing phone services because you need a wireless/land line to use it; and Voice is invite-only currently.
The major questions that arise are: Can Google be considered a common carrier with its Voice application? Should its call discrimination be bound by net neutrality principles? The fact that neutrality applies to phone services but not to software applications that utilize the phone services seems a bit iffy. Though the FCC’s rules specifically apply to network providers, perhaps they should reevaluate their rules to apply broadly. Though AT&T’s line of reasoning may be flawed, perhaps they do have a point.