VOIP to Star at FCC

Next Thursday is crunch day for the VOIP sector. Having reportedly reached a crucial agreement with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) concerning law enforcement access to VOIP calls, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans next week to hold a key meeting that could help determine the future direction of VOIP regulation.

At an open meeting in Washington on February 12, the FCC commissioners will consider whether the Free World Dialup (FWD) VOIP service is a telecom service, and therefore subject to the same rules as a standard circuit-switched voice service. They will also begin the regulatory rulemaking process regarding all IP service and applications, including, but not limited to, VOIP.

According to a Dow Jones report, the FBI had asked the FCC to delay any decision regarding the Free World Dialup service while the two organizations agreed on an approach to the tapping of VOIP calls. Now it seems an agreement has been reached, with the FCC reportedly agreeing to revise the current wiretap rules.

The decisions taken at the meeting will provide further guidance about any potential regulatory restrictions on VOIP services in the United States, though it's only the beginning of a lengthy process that will ultimately affect interconnect charges, universal service fees, and taxes worth billions of dollars.

FCC chairman Michael Powell has previously indicated that the watchdog will apply as little regulation to VOIP as possible (see FCC's Powell: Let VOIP Be), though any decisions taken next week will only mark the start of what is likely to be a lengthy process (see Insider Previews VOIP Upheaval).

Free World Dialup founder Jeff Pulver, who also presides over Internet publishing company Pulver.com, is hopeful that the FCC will decide that his venture's VOIP offering is not a telecom service. In his weblog about VOIP issues, Pulver wrote that such a decision would "send a strong signal to consumers and capital markets that the FCC is not interested in subjecting end-to-end IP Communications services to traditional voice telecom regulation under the Communications Act."

Not that everyone's waiting for the FCC to speak up: One of the VOIP sector's leading players, Vonage Holdings Corp., today announced a new $40 million round of funding (see Vonage Raises $40M), and has just hit the 100,000 user mark (see Vonage Claims VOIP First). Meanwhile, the RBOCs have prepared for a potential VOIP free-for-all (see RBOC VOIP Coming in 2004).

— Ray Le Maistre, International Editor, Boardwatch

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