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Lawmakers Urge FCC to Regulate VoIP

U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering (R-MS) and 61 other members of Congress urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Tuesday to "immediately declare" that the FCC has sole jurisdiction to regulate Voice over IP services.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the lawmakers said VoIP services are inherently interstate in nature and should not be subject to a patchwork of state rules and regulations.

"VoIP is the next forward step in voice communications," Pickering said in a statement. "As this efficient technology grows, consumers will benefit from advanced services and reduced costs. Clearly, VoIP is interstate in nature and thus subject to FCC jurisdiction. This letter asks the FCC to expedite their ruling on the subject and provide jurisdictional and regulatory clarity."

The FCC is currently conducting a year-long study on the emerging technology. Pickering and Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) introduced legislation earlier this year calling for VoIP services to be exempt from carrier access charges, state taxes and local regulations. The bills would prevent the FCC from delegating VoIP regulatory authority to state and local officials, but the legislation has stalled.

"We strongly agree with this broadly accepted cornerstone of pending VoIP legislation," the letter to Powell states. "We believe that such an important, but narrow, finding cannot wait for a more comprehensive VoIP bill to work its way through the legislative process.

"It simply makes no sense to impose a collage of 52 different regulatory regimes on a service that has an inseverable (and international) component," the letter continued.

In particular, the letter urges the FCC to expedite a ruling request by independent Internet telephony provider Vonage that would classify the business as an interstate information service no different than applications like e-mail. Such a ruling would put VoIP beyond the taxing and regulatory reach of the states.

"The [Vonage] petition gives the commission an appropriate opportunity to immediately declare that VoIP services, whether traversing the public Internet or privately managed IP networks, are interstate in nature and subject to the commission's exclusive jurisdiction," the letter stated.

Since announcing in December that it would launch an inquiry into the possible need of regulations for the quickly emerging VoIP sector, the FCC has repeatedly said it plans to use a "light regulatory approach."

While VoIP is clearly a phone service, providers say they shouldn't be regulated in the same manner as the PSTN carriers since they don't traffic in voice packets. Minnesota and New York have already attempted to tax VoIP services as they would traditional telephone service, only to be rebuffed by the courts. California is also considering regulating VoIP as a telephone service.

In its year-long VoIP review process, the FCC has already exempted Jeff Pulver's Free World Dialup (FWP) from state regulations because the free calls customers make are routed entirely over the Internet and never interconnect with the public switched telephone network . With a broadband connection, FWD members talk with each other computer-to-computer.

In a preliminary ruling issued in August, the FCC also said Internet telephony should be subject to traditional wiretap laws. The preliminary decision will force VoIP providers to comply with the same law enforcement rules as telephone carriers.

The FCC is also considering VoIP carrier obligations in regards to emergency 9-1-1 calling services and any contributions the VoIP industry should make to the Universal Service Fund.

Pickering said a favorable ruling by the FCC in response to the letter would "ensure a greater degree of market certainty and prevent a misguided approach to regulating VoIP, spurring private innovation which will create competition and cost savings for consumers."

Thirty-three members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee signed the letter. The FCC did not respond to a request for comment.