The FCC has apparently heard complaints that Google Voice restricts calling from consumers to certain rural communities.
In a letter to Google dated today and posted this afternoon, the FCC noted that it's looking into the matter as the Commission attempts to establish network neutrality rules that would prevent broadband service providers from blocking or degrading content and applications beyond the use of "reasonable network management techniques." The Commission is slated to introduce its "Open Internet" ruling proposal during a meeting set for Thursday, Oct. 22. (See FCC Chairman Pushes for Net Neutrality Rules and FCC Puts Net Neutrality on Agenda.)
The FCC added that it's seeking "a more complete understanding" of the Google Voice situation in light of pending Commission proceedings about so-called "access stimulation."
The FCC's Google Voice probe stems from a complaint lodged by AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) in September alleging that the service blocks some calls to rural areas so Google can sidestep the payment of access charges. Google has acknowledged that the service blocks some calls, but argues that Google Voice, as a free, invitation-only service delivered over the Internet, isn't subject to the same restrictions that govern telcos. (See AT&T, Google Square Up.)
Google Voice provides those folks with one phone number capable of handling text messages and voice mail apps, and receiving calls from multiple landline and mobile phone numbers. In an earlier blog entry in response to the AT&T allegations, Google contends that Google Voice is not intended to replace traditional phone service, citing that users still need a landline or mobile phone to use it.
According to the letter to Google, the FCC is asking the company to provide answers to several questions it has about Google Voice. Among them:
- How a Google Voice call is routed, and are calls to particular telephony numbers restricted?
- How does Google inform Voice users about any restrictions?
- To what extent are each of the Google Voice functionalities offered for free? Does Google charge for any of these services? How does Google currently pay for the service?
- How many Google Voice users are there, and how does Google define its "invitation-only" model?
- Is Google Voice a reseller of "telecommunications services"?
- Does Google contract with third parties to "obtain inputs" for Google Voice?
The FCC has ordered Google to answer those questions (and others) by close of business Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009.
The FCC probe comes soon after AT&T cleared up a different matter with network neutrality overtones. On Tuesday, AT&T said it would allow iPhone 3G users to use VoIP apps over a cell connection. Before that, 3G iPhones could do that only if they were connecting via a WiFi connection. (See AT&T Takes Lock off iPhone 3G VoIP.)
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News