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The Google Telephone Company?

Google has undertaken a beta-test of a telephony platform that includes the opportunity to route incoming calls to multiple devices and telephone numbers as well as free domestic long distance service.

Google offers a service that fits somewhere between computer-to-computer, Internet telephony and Voice over the Internet Protocol telephony with access to and from the public switched telephone network. These service categories present polar opposites for U.S. regulatory purposes. The FCC’s Declaratory Ruling in Pulver.com clearly states that computer-mediated voice communications constitutes a largely unregulated information service. Without stating that PSTN accessible VoIP constitutes a regulated telecommunications service, the FCC has increasingly treated is as such. Using its elastic “ancillary jurisdiction,” provided under Title I of the Communications Act, the Commission has opted to apply Title II, common carrier duties on PSTN accessible VoIP service providers. These duties reduce the competitive advantages of VoIP as they impose significant costs including: financial contributions to universal service funding, wiretapping cooperation with law enforcement officials, emergency 911access, number portability to and from VoIP telephone numbers, and accessibility for people with disabilities.

Most recently the FCC specified that interconnected VoIP service providers must comply with Sec. 214 of the Communications Act that requires common carriers to file applications with the FCC and state public utility commissions before discontinuing any service. See IP Enabled Services, Report and Order, WC Dkt 04-36 (FCC 09-40 May 13, 2009); available here (PDF).

Does the launch of Google Voice create the potential for the company to become a major regulated telephone company? On one hand, the service clearly provides access to and from the PSTN. But on the other hand, Google Voice requires subscribers to launch an Internet browser and to enter instructions using a Web interface. Does computer-initiated voice communications migrate the service into the “computer-to-computer” Internet telephony classification, despite the PSTN link? Eventually at stake will be millions and possibly billions of dollars in revenues and universal service funding.

By Rob Frieden, Pioneers Chair and Professor of Telecommunications and Law

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