FCC Mulls November VoIP Vote


WASHINGTON — In the absence of congressional action, Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell has taken over the direction of
Voice over IP policy in the Capitol, at least for the time
being.


Speaking Tuesday at the Voice over Net (VON) conference in Boston, Powell said he would
force a vote at the FCC before the end of the year to declare VoIP an
interstate service and preempt state regulation and taxation over the
emerging technology.


Today, Jeffrey J. Carlisle, the new chief of the FCC’s Wireline Competition
Bureau, said a VoIP decision might come as early as the next regularly
scheduled FCC meeting on Nov. 9 because of “timing issues.”


On Nov. 17, oral arguments are expected to get under way in Minnesota’s
appeal of a decision last year that ruled the Internet telephone service
offered by Vonage was an interstate information service and not subject to
Minnesota laws regarding traditional telephone carriers.


“Furthermore, we expect that there will continue to be various state
commission decisions that take place through the end of the year in
significant jurisdictions,” Carlisle said. “It would be nice to get clarity
out in the November timeframe so at least the states that are looking at
these decisions will have something from us to read about before they make a
decision.”


Carlisle said the decision to put VoIP on the FCC’s November agenda is
ultimately up to Powell, but added, “I know a decision has been referred [by
staff to the commissioners]. I’ll leave it to the chairman’s office on
whether or not they want to move that [decision] forward.”


Carlisle declined to comment about what particular issue the FCC staff has
reached a decision. Both Vonage and SBC have petitioned the FCC to declare
VoIP an interstate information service. In addition, the FCC is conducting a
year-long rulemaking investigation into all IP-enabled services.


“[Vonage] is one of the possible vehicles that we have. Another possible
vehicle would be to resolve it generally within the [rule-making process].
That would be a broader decision, obviously, because the commission would be
making rules based on the record we’ve already received in that proceeding,”
Carlisle said.


At the VON show earlier this week, Powell said the first step is to establish federal
jurisdiction over VoIP. Several bills were introduced in Congress this year
to accomplish that, but lawmakers have failed to take any action in light of
state resistance and a feeling that VoIP issues could be dealt with next
year in a reform of telecom laws.


Nevertheless, when the VoIP legislation failed in the 108th Congress, U.S.
Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) and 61 other members of Congress urged the
FCC earlier this month to “immediately declare” that the FCC has sole
jurisdiction over regulating VoIP services.


“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,” Pickering and the other lawmakers
wrote to Powell.


Pickering and Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) authored unsuccessful legislation
calling for VoIP services to be exempt from carrier access charges, state
taxes and local regulations. The bills would have prevented the FCC from
delegating VoIP regulatory authority to state and local officials.


“VoIP jurisdiction is particularly important because if we don’t move
forward on that relatively soon, we’re running the risk of having multiple
conflicting state and federal court decisions … and then have to make rules on
top of that,” Carlisle said.


Carlisle also told reporters he favored a narrow approach to what Powell is
seeking.


“My feeling is that the narrower decision is easier to move forward than a
much broader decision at this particular point of time,” he said. “I think
decisions on the broader issues raised in the IP-enabled services proceeding
in terms of however you classify it and whatever the jurisdiction is and
what sort of regulatory regimes actually apply — that’s not going to be
something that the commission is really going to be able to address until
the first quarter of next year, at the earliest.


“So if you want to move on the jurisdiction issue sooner
rather than later,” Carlisle added, “doing it on a narrow basis is a reasonable way to go
about doing it.”


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
911 calling services and any contributions the VoIP industry should make
to the Universal Service Fund.


“What the commission does really depends on how broad they want to do this.
If they want to be very specific about it and say ‘look, for these types of
hybrid services which originate on the IP platform and terminate on the PSTN,
this is what we believe the jurisdictional answer is,'” Carlisle said.
“That’s going to be narrower than saying anything over an IP platform — or
any VoIP service however defined in the order — is going to be interstate.
It just all depends on what the commission thinks is appropriate to do.”

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