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FCC to Address VoIP Issues

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is keeping its December promise to make Voice over Internet Protocol a top priority by placing two key Internet telephony issues on its Thursday public meeting agenda.

The agency plans to issue its first proposed rules to determine what telecom rules should apply to VoIP and to decide on VoIP pioneer Jeff Pulver's petition to have his Free World Dialup exempted from all FCC regulations.

VoIP technology presents problems for regulators. Most VoIP providers route calls from leased local telephone lines to a gateway server that converts analog voice into data packets. From there, the data packet moves over the public Internet or a private backbone to its destination, where it goes through another gateway, rolling over to a local line.

While VoIP is clearly phone service, providers say they shouldn't be regulated in the same manner as public-switched traditional telephone carriers since they don't traffic in voice packets. As the major telecoms and cable companies join startup VoIP ventures in moving voice converted into data traffic over the Internet, the issue becomes critical for cash-starved states that raise hundreds of millions in telecom fees and taxes.

There are also concerns about law enforcement agencies' ability to wiretap VoIP calls, the location accuracy of 911 calls and whether VoIP telephone companies should pay into a fund that subsidizes telephone service for low-income individuals and schools and libraries.

If the FCC determines Internet-based telephony is an information service, as opposed to a telecom carrier, the technology would be free of many of the rules, regulations and taxes governing traditional telephone companies.

In Pulver's case, the FCC faces narrower issues. Pulver's VoIP venture requires members to buy special equipment and have a broadband connection to talk with each other computer-to-computer. Beyond the equipment, there are no fees and the free calls are routed entirely over the Internet.

More than a year ago, Pulver asked the FCC to rule that Free World Dialup is not a telecom carrier. A positive ruling for Pulver would make Free World Dialup exempt from FCC rules and regulations.

"What we're seeking is that pure end-to-end Internet telephony not be deemed a telecom carrier as defined by the 1996 Telecommunications Act," Pulver told internetnews.com.

According to a published report, the Pulver decision was placed on the FCC agenda only after the FBI agreed to drop its wiretap concerns about Free World Dialup in return for the agency agreeing to make any future wiretap decisions about VoIP retroactive.

"I haven't seen that letter from the FBI," Pulver said.

The FBI did not return telephone inquiries from internetnews and the FCC declined to comment on a pending decision.

Pulver's petition is one of four pending VoIP decisions at the FCC. Long-distance carrier AT&T is challenging the fees it must pay for delivering calls traveling mostly over the Internet but terminating on traditional telephone networks.

Level 3 is also challenging local access connections fees for Internet-based calls and New Jersey-based Vonage is seeking exemption from state fees.