FCC Rules on VOIP – Sort Of
The first big decision was a victory for VOIP proponents. The commission ruled that Pulver.com's Free World Dialup VOIP service is an information service, not a telecommunications service. The decision was based largely on the analysis that it doesn’t fit the 1996 Telecom Act’s definition of a telecommunications service.
“There is no question that this doesn’t constitute a telecommunications service,” said commissioner Kathleen Abernathy. “It falls squarely outside that statutory definition.”
That analysis was shared by commissioner Jonathan Adelstein: “Pulver.com’s service is largely unregulated today and, in my view, should stay that way.”
Commissioner Michael Copps dissented amid concerns that the FCC hadn’t fully considered the implications, particularly for law enforcement, universal service, and public safety. “I’m afraid we’re leaping before we’re looking,” he said. “This rush to reclassify will lead us down a road where we’re compelled to engage in legal calisthenics and contortion of both CALEA and the 1996 Telecom Act to meet our statutory obligations. This is admittedly an important decision, but not so important that it cannot wait a little while longer while we conduct an expeditious review.”
That review is coming. After the vote on Free World Dialup, the commission initiated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on Internet telephony (see http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-243868A1.doc). Although the commission is starting from the premise that VOIP should be subject to minimal regulation, it still has to clarify issues such as wiretaps and whether Internet telephony is an intrastate or interstate service.
However, there are two reasons to believe that the FCC won’t issue an Order on VOIP until late 2004 -- if then. First, the commission historically doesn’t undertake major policy initiatives in a Presidential election year. Second, Internet telephony is such a complex issue with such far-reaching implications that it’s difficult to see how it could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, let alone in one fell swoop.
One thing is clear: The commission believes that federal regulators, not states, should set VOIP regulations. The NPRM is an opportunity to avoid a patchwork of rules across the country, Abernathy says. Nevertheless, completely preempting state authority likely would send Internet telephony to the courts, prolonging uncertainty.
— Tim Kridel, Senior Editor, Heavy Reading