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AT&T Dials Up Criticism of Google Voice

AT&T has stepped up its campaign to convince the Federal Communications Commission to take on Google's Voice application, arguing once again that the search giant is guilty of a "double standard" on Net neutrality due to its call-blocking policy.

This afternoon, the telecom giant filed a letter with the FCC and provided it with a myth v. fact sheet rebutting Google's claim that the software application is a different class of service than what regulated phone companies offer.

The controversy stems from Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) restriction on calls in certain rural areas, which it justifies on the grounds that local providers charge exorbitant rates to connect calls, often signing deals with adult-chat and conference-call services to drive up their fees. Google claims that those access costs are prohibitive to its free Voice service.

Further, Google has argued that because its service is a software application, it is exempt from the common carriage rules that govern companies like AT&T (NYSE: T).

In today's letter, AT&T shot back at Google, claiming that it has been "less than candid" about its call-blocking policy, which it said extends well beyond the so-called "traffic pumping" schemes associated with local carriers.

AT&T also advanced the legal argument that Google Voice is every bit a telecommunications service, which would give the FCC authority to intervene and require it to connect the calls.

"Google's assertion that such blocking is beyond the Commission’s jurisdiction to stop because Google Voice is merely an Internet-based software application ... might be true if Google Voice were really just a 'software' application," wrote Robert Quinn, AT&T's senior vice president of its federal regulatory department. "But Google Voice is far more than just a software application."

Quinn argued that Google's relationship with Bandwidth.com to route calls across the public switched telephone network (PSTN) mandates compliance with FCC rules. Even if the commission determined that Google Voice is an "information" service rather than a "telecommunications" service, the fact that it is a call-routing application brings it under the FCC's jurisdiction according to a 2004 decision asserting authority over free Internet applications that sync up with telecom services.

"Thus, regardless of how Google Voice is ultimately classified, Google's call-blocking practices are well within the commission's jurisdiction," Quinn said.

Google plays the 'free' card

Google responded with a brief statement reiterating its position that "Google Voice is a free Web application that manages peoples' existing phone numbers and isn't subject to the regulations that govern traditional phone carriers. Our sole intention is to isolate and restrict numbers only associated with traffic pumping schemes, which would impact our ability to offer Google Voice for free," a company spokesman told InternetNews.com in an e-mail.

AT&T has framed its attack on Google Voice around the Net neutrality debate that has been seething in tech-policy circles ahead of the FCC's vote next week on whether to initiate a proceeding to update its Internet principles and make them binding rules.

Google, of course, is a longstanding and outspoken supporter of Net neutrality for ISPs, a position generally opposed by AT&T and other telecom and cable companies. Quoting from the FCC's existing Internet principles, AT&T argued that Google's call-blocking policy amounts to a direct violation of the provisions the search giant has fought so hard to defend.

Further, AT&T made a slippery slope argument, warning that creating an exemption for Google's Voice application would set a dangerous precedent that could enable it to exercise undue influence on the accessibility of content and services on the Web -- precisely the argument Net neutrality advocates have used against ISPs.

"If the Commission cannot stop Google from blocking disfavored telephone calls as Google contends, then how could the commission ever stop Google from also blocking disfavored Web sites from appearing in the results of its search engine; or prohibit Google from blocking access to applications that compete with its own e-mail, text messaging, cloud computing and other services; or otherwise prevent Google from abusing the gatekeeper control it wields over the Internet?" Quinn asked.

Last week, the FCC asked Google to provide it with detailed information about how its Voice application works, and a legal opinion on how it fits into the commission's regulatory purview.