AT&T Accuses Google of Call Blocking and/or Violation of Network Neutrality Principles

September 25, 2009. AT&T submitted a letter [PDF] to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in which it states that Google Voice engages in call blocking, violation of the FCC's 2005 policy statement, and/or violation of the proposed non-discrimination principle of net neutrality. The letter urges the FCC to "order Google to play by the same rules as its competitors".

The letter addresses application of law and policy principles to Google's application named Google Voice. Yet, it is also deliberately and carefully vague as to both alleged violations and requested remedies.

The letter appears to be an effort to disparage Google (which has led a campaign of unkind words directed at AT&T and other telcos and cable companies), to refocus FCC and public attention from AT&T's to Google's services and practices, and to expand the scope of the forthcoming net neutrality mandates to encompass companies such as Google.

AT&T wrote that Google is "one of the most noisome trumpeters of so-called ``net neutrality创 regulation". Then; AT&T quoted the Financial Times as authority for the proposition that Google is acting in an inconsistent manner. Rather than making key factual allegations, the AT&T cited statements of fact contained in news stories in the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

The letter contains the assertion, citing news reports, that "Google is systematically blocking telephone calls from consumers that use Google Voice to call telephone numbers in certain rural communities".

The AT&T letter states that "Other providers" (AT&T does not explain the term "providers") are "banned from call blocking because in June 2007, the Wireline Competition Bureau emphatically declared that all carriers are prohibited from pursuing ``self help actions such as call blocking.创 The Bureau expressed concern that call blocking ``may degrade the reliability of the nation抯 telecommunications network.创" See, June 28, 2007, Declaratory Ruling and Order (DR&O) [4 pages in PDF].

AT&T thus argues that Google is reducing its access expenses in a manner that is barred to carriers. The letter states that Google Voice competes with carriers such as AT&T.

The letter continues that "Google Voice includes a calling platform that offers unified communications capabilities and a domestic/international audio bridging telecommunications service that, with the assistance of a local exchange carrier known as, provides the IP-in-the-middle connection for calls between traditional landline and/or wireless telephones. As such, Google Voice would appear to be subject to the same call blocking prohibition applicable to providers of other telecommunications services." (Footnotes omitted.)

The AT&T letter then argues in the alternative. "But even if Google Voice is instead an "Internet application,创 Google would still be subject to the Commission's Internet Policy Statement, whose fourth principle states that ``consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.创" See, the FCC's policy statement [3 pages in PDF], adopted on August 5, 2005. See also, stories titled "FCC Adopts a Policy Statement Regarding Network Neutrality" in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,190, August 8, 2005, and "FCC Releases Policy Statement Regarding Internet Regulation" in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,221, September 26, 2005.

Finally, the letter asserts that "Google is also flouting the so-called ``fifth principle of non-discrimination创 for which Google has so fervently advocated. According to Google, non-discrimination ensures that a provider ``cannot block fair access创 to another provider. But that is exactly what Google is doing when it blocks calls that Google Voice customers make to telephone numbers associated with certain local exchange carriers." (Footnote omitted.)

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski gave a speech [8 pages in PDF] on September 21, 2009, in which he proposed that the FCC promulgate rules that contain network neutrality mandates -- namely, the four principles in the 2005 policy statement, plus the principles of non-discrimination and transparency. See also, stories titled "Genachowski, Copps and Clyburn Back Net Neutrality Rules", "McDowell and Baker Comment on Genachowski Proposal to Adopt Net Neutrality Rules", "Sen. Hutchison Offers Amendment to Appropriations Bill to Block FCC Net Neutrality Rulemaking", and "More Reaction to Genachowski's Network Neutrality Speech" in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,986, September 22, 2009.

AT&T argued that "there is no sound reason to radically expand and codify" the four principles in the 2005 policy statement, but that if the FCC does so, it "absolutely must ensure that any such rules apply evenly -- not just to network operators but also to providers of Internet applications, content and services".

AT&T also wrote that Google's inconsistency "highlights the fallacy of any approach to Internet regulation that focuses myopically on network providers, but not application, service, and content providers. To the extent ``net neutrality创 is animated by a concern about ostensible Internet ``gatekeepers,创 that concern must necessarily apply to application, service, and content providers that, like Google, can exercise their power to control which websites consumers will see and which consumers' calls will be blocked." (Footnote omitted.)

AT&T did not style its letter a complaint. The letter references two FCC proceedings -- Docket Nos. 07-52 and 07-135.

07-52 is the docket number for the FCC's proceeding titled "In the Matter of Broadband Industry Practices". The FCC adopted a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on March 22, 2007, and released it on April 16, 2007. It is FCC 07-31. See, story titled "FCC Adopts NOI Regarding Broadband Market Practices" in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,556, March 27, 2007.

Also, on August 1, 2008, when the FCC adopted an order [67 pages in PDF] in which it asserted authority to regulate the network management practices of broadband service provides, that order referenced Docket No. 07-52. That order followed a complaint submitted by Public Knowledge alleging that Comcast's network management practices violated the FCC's 2005 policy statement. See, story titled "FCC Asserts Authority to Regulate Network Management Practices" in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 1,805, August 4, 2008.

07-135 is the docket number for the FCC's proceeding titled "In the Matter of Establishing Just and Reasonable Rates for Local Exchange Carriers". The FCC adopted and released a the above hyperlinked DR&O in this proceeding on June 28, 2007. It is DA 07-2863. The FCC also adopted and released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) [24 pages in PDF] on October 2, 2007. It is FCC 07-176.

Derek Turner of the Free Press (an ally of Google in policy debates over net neutrality mandates) stated in a release that this AT&T letter is a "red herring" and a "political stunt".

He continued that "Whether Google Voice should be subject to the same rules as a traditional telephone service has absolutely nothing to do with Net Neutrality rules. The FCC has been grappling for years with the issue of how to apply a regulatory classification to voice-over-the-Internet services that connect to the conventional phone network. This issue is nothing new. The FCC certainly should not let AT&T's misdirection delay its rulemaking on the separate issue of Net Neutrality -- spats between two dueling giants cannot be allowed to stand in the way of Internet freedom."

On September 18, 2009, the FCC published a letter [PDF] from Richard Whitt of Google to James Schlichting of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau (WTB) dated August 21, 2009, regarding "Apple's Rejection of Google Voice for iPhone Application".  In this letter Google responds to questions from the FCC regarding Google Voice.

Google wrote that "Google Voice is an enhanced voice and data messaging application that provides number management and related services to users who have one or more existing wireline or mobile phone services. The proposed Google Voice for iPhone is a software application designed to allow Google Voice users to utilized their iPhone to manage their phone numbers and voicemail, integrate contacts, place outbound calls, and send SMS messages from their Google Voice phone number. The application does not provide the underlying communications pathway, or the separate SMS service. The application can be fully integrated with the users' stored iPhone contacts to make calling and messaging easier. The application can only be utilized by users with an active Google Voice account, which currently is an invitation-only service."

Google stated in this letter that "Apple representatives informed Google that the Google Voice application was rejected because Apple believed the application duplicated the core dialer functionality of the iPhone. The Apple representatives indicated that the company did not want applications that could potentially replace such functionality."

Google also stated that there have been no communications on this subject between Google and AT&T.

Google added that Apple has approved other Google applications for the Apple App Store, including Google Earth and Google Mobile, and that Google has no other pending applications with Apple.