Flip Flops Are Evil
It's always interesting, as well as incredibly frustrating, when a company takes a stand on an issue and then switches back and forth based on what best suits it on any particular day. There's a word for taking a stand against something and then doing it yourself, but we're not going to use that word. More than a few people have been using it to describe a growing feud between two of the biggest names from the old order and the new.
"Sir, we don't have to be fair. We're the phone company." — Ernestine, Laugh In
Once upon a time, telephones were the height of communications technology, and AT&T was the king of the phone — so much so that the Feds chopped it up. Now, phones are the old way, and the Internet has ascended the heights. If not the king of the internet, Google is certainly part of the web's oligarchy, making it — like all the young and innovative — a target for those representing the old way. In these two giants we find the prototypical struggle between young verses old.
The debate over Net Neutrality has been ongoing for quite some time, with Google as a highly vocal proponent. While there aren't formal rules on the subject yet, the FCC has set out a series of principles that supporters, including Google, hope will soon become FCC regulations. The company has also pushed for opening up unused parts of the TV spectrum for free public use, and was key in obtaining the requirement that the winner of the January 2008 700MHz spectrum auction must allow users to use any mobile device of their choice, running any operating system. In each of these initiatives, AT&T has placed itself firmly on the other side of the table, opposing anything Google supports.
Surprisingly, AT&T has reversed its position, and is now passionately supportive of net neutrality. What, you may ask, caused this dramatic shift? Why, Google, of course. AT&T filed a letter with the FCC today complaining that Google Voice blocks calls to certain rural locations. According to AT&T, blocking phone calls is a violation of net neutrality — dictionary, anyone? — and thus Google is in violation of the rules that aren't rules which AT&T vehemently despised but now passionately adores.
One might ask why Google is blocking these calls in the first place, and that would be a very good question, with a very good answer. Local phone companies can charge connection fees for putting through calls from national phone companies like AT&T and other phone-related services, like Google Voice, though the fees are strictly controlled. Rural phone companies, however, are allowed to charge larger rates — 100 times higher, according to CNET. As Google has to pay these fees for putting calls through, it's blocking calls to those areas — Google doesn't charge for its service, so it can't pass these fees along via rate increases as AT&T and other phone companies do.
Even worse, some of these small phone companies are colluding with high-traffic services like adult phone lines — the phone company splits the outrageously high connect fees with companies in exchange for those companies continuing to drive high volumes of calls for which it can charge the fees. These deals are known as traffic pumping, and AT&T, among others, has complained to the FCC about the high rates, claiming that in 2007, it lost some $250 million due to the practice. The FCC, for its part, has regulations pending to end traffic pumping, but they have yet to be finalized.
Continuing to raise questions, one might ask why AT&T doesn't block the calls as well. Phone companies like AT&T are bound by what are known as common-carrier laws. These laws require that companies maintaining an infrastructure — that is, wires and poles and Ernestine at the switchboard — must allow all calls across it. This prevents companies from refusing to accept calls from competing companies, and in general, ensures that the phone system is actually usable.
Google, of course, isn't maintaining any infrastructure — there are no telephone poles with Google's name on them. Google Voice is an internet application, like Skype — in fact, unlike Skype, it's not possible to use Google Voice without a telephone. (It is possible to make/take calls via SIP, but a verified mobile or landline number must be on the account at all times.) Though it routes incoming calls and allows outgoing calls, it isn't a softphone — one must use an actual phone to answer or place calls. As such, Google isn't subject to common-carrier regulations.
Why then is AT&T making a fuss. The matter at hand is merely a symptom of a larger conflict that is part of the age-old war between the old and the new. Google Voice provides users with phone numbers, voicemail, and long distance calling — not to mention advanced features like voicemail transcription and routing calls all over creation — and doesn't charge a dime for it. AT&T doesn't offer most of these things, and it sends out an — often obscene — monthly bill for its services. In short, Google Voice makes AT&T look bad.
Net neutrality is an important principle, one that should be codified by the FCC and strictly enforced. It shouldn't, however, be twisted by one of its most vocal and vehement critics to fuel what amounts to a corporate spitball fight. Net neutrality isn't about phone calls. It's about preventing telecommunications companies — like AT&T — from engaging in price discrimination and crippling the service their customers pay them to provide. It's about fairness and providing customers with what they've paid for.
Google cannot be expected to operate like a phone company — it isn't one, period. It is not accurate, appropriate, or acceptable to apply regulations meant to keep telephone companies from giving their paying customers the shaft to a free forwarding service — and particularly not when the motive has nothing to do with the public good. It's time for the FCC to read Ernestine the riot act.
Justin Ryan is a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.