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Panel Predicts Few VoIP Regulations

WASHINGTON -- Underscoring the call for a light regulatory approach to emerging Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies, key advisors to Congress and the Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday the primary Capital Hill concerns about Internet telephone businesses built on VoIP are related to law enforcement and emergency services.

Speaking on a panel at the COMNET Conference and Expo, Republican and Democratic legal counsels for the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and the FCC were unanimous in their opinion that the rules governing VoIP deployment should not be based on traditional telecom regulatory models.

"I don't believe anyone would say we should take this new technology and jam it into an old construct," said Lisa Zaina, senior legal advisor to Democratic FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

Nevertheless, VoIP is not likely to be entirely regulation free, according to the panel.

The Department of Justice has already urged the FCC to require VoIP providers to comply with the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which mandates telephone companies make their systems wiretap friendly. There are also concerns about the location accuracy of 911 calls.

CALEA, though, applies to only those entities classified by the FCC as telecommunications carriers. VoIP providers contend they are information services, although they are promising to work with law enforcement officials.

"The law enforcement aspect is important," Greg Rothschild, minority counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee said. "There seems to be a disconnect between the Department of Justice and the FCC on this issue."

The FCC began proceedings in December to determine what, if any, telecom taxes and rules should apply to VoIP technology. The proceedings are expected to take at least a year.

In addition, the FCC is expected to rule as early as February on several claims already on file that VoIP services should be exempt from federal, state and local fees normally charged on telephone calls.

Long distance carrier AT&T , for instance, is challenging the fees it must pay for delivering calls traveling mostly over the Internet to traditional local carriers. Free World Dialup, whose calls are routed entirely over the Internet, is seeking a total exemption from FCC imposed fees since its traffic never touches the legacy Bell infrastructure system.

As the major telecoms and cable companies join start-up VoIP ventures in moving voice traffic over the Internet, the regulatory issue becomes critical for cash-starved states that raise hundreds of millions in revenues by taxing traditional telephone services.

Two weeks ago, Sen. John Sununu said he would draft a bill to keep Internet telephony beyond the reach of state and federal regulations that govern traditional telecoms, but two panelists Wednesday said VoIP legislation would be difficult to get through Congress.

Bill Bailey, senior legal counsel for the Senate Commerce and Science Committee, said Congress is reluctant to get involved in VoIP regulatory issues, but added it might in an "oversight way."

Greg Rothschild, minority counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, agreed with Bailey. "It would be really difficult to move through Congress because there is so much money involved," he said.