Powell Calls for Federal VoIP Rule

BOSTON — The federal government must have regulatory authority over VoIP
if the technology is to develop quickly and uniformly in the
United States, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell said today.

“The first step is to establish federal jurisdiction,” Powell said in his
keynote at the VON 2004 trade show here, adding that he will present the
question to other commissioners for a vote.

The move comes after several bills aimed at accomplishing the same thing
have stalled or have been watered down through the legislative process. Court
cases in Minnesota and elsewhere have generally found that VoIP is a data
service, and therefore is exempt from state telecom tariffs.

However, the FCC doesn’t want to dither while a slew of potentially
contradictory court rulings pile up, Jeffrey J. Carlisle, chief of the FCC’s
wireline competition bureau, told internetnews.com. Powell did not
say if he will raise the issue at the next meeting, but Carlisle expects it
will be in the near future.

Powell has sided with the VoIP community, calling for a hands-off
approach.

“This is a different way and deserves a different regulatory
proposition,” Powell said.

In his address, he said we need a
Constitution for the regulation of VoIP, as he invoked the founding fathers who established a
flexible framework that encouraged interstate commerce.

But while casting himself as a patriot for freedom from government
interference, Powell is well aware he operates in a highly political sphere
where angering the wrong people can trigger calls for resignation.

He said he’s unlikely to pick a fight
over the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which
defines the rules that let local police and governments wiretap a phone line
without the owner’s knowledge. There are useful elements to the CALEA, but some definitions are dated,
because they draw bold lines between phone calls and Internet use, which are
distinctions that are increasingly unnecessary.

“There’s one thing the government has a first and profound responsibility to
do — protect its citizens from harm. That’s not an economic question,”
Powell said. “It is very likely that VoIP will have far reaching consequences of anything the
commission has done or will do,” Powell said. “We must get this right.”

Powell said he’s received no grief from the Department of Justice or the
Bush administration. Rather, officials have asked Powell and the FCC for
technical guidance.

Another priority for Powell is to simplify the inter-carrier exchange
system, which determines the prices companies must pay to send traffic over
other rivals’ networks.

Cathy Martine,
who lead VoIP efforts for AT&T , spoke after
Powell. She was supportive of a “light regulatory touch” on VoIP but
stressed that all telecoms must be treated alike.

Issues like CALEA and e911 are on AT&T’s roadmap, although emergency calling
has not proved a top priority for the current buyers of AT&T’s
CallVantage VoIP service.

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