Congress Praises FCC VoIP Ruling

But rural telecom and consumer groups aren't so happy.

By Roy Mark | Posted Nov 10, 2004
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Both sides of the Voice over IP divide weighed in on yesterday's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling that stipulates the interstate nature of VoIP services.

Two lawmakers were quick to agree with FCC Chairman Michael Powell who said Tuesday's ruling "lays a jurisdictional foundation" for future telecom reform. However, rural telecom and consumer groups saw little to celebrate in the agency's decision.

"I strongly support the FCC's decision to exempt Internet telephony from state regulation," wrote U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Energy and commerce Committee. "To subject this emerging global technology to the quagmire of 51 possible sets of regulations in the U.S. alone would suffocate both quality and cost-efficient choice.

"With this decision, Congress and the FCC can work in the coming year to allow VoIP services to become a viable alternative to traditional telephone service," Barton added. "I look forward to creating clear rules for all IP-enabled services."

In the Senate, New Hampshire Republican John Sununu, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, praised the FCC for "following the lead established" by his legislation calling for the pre-emption of state regulation of broadband voice services. Like Barton, Sununu predicted more congressional action on the issue.

"Comprehensive federal legislation is needed now to deal with expected legal challenges to this FCC decision, and to address other aspects involving this technology," he said in a statement.

The FCC decision leaves much for Congress to consider. Narrow in scope, the vote determined only the interstate nature of Internet telephony. It did not, for instance, rule whether VoIP is an information service, such as cable modem broadband, or a telecommunications service like the Bells.

Nor did the FCC rule on the 911 obligations of voice providers or potential Universal Fund contributions, which legacy network users pay to fund telephone costs in rural areas as well as Internet connections in schools and libraries. The FCC has already ruled broadband phone companies must make their networks wiretap-friendly.

Foreshadowing the coming telecom reform debate, consumer and rural telecom interests expressed disappointment with the FCC's action.

National Telecommunications Cooperative Association CEO Michael E. Brunner accused the FCC of giving VoIP a "free ride" and an unfair competitive advantage over copper legacy networks operators.

"We disagree with the FCC's decision to give preference to one technology and tilting the competitive advantage in VoIP's favor to the detriment of other technologies," Brunner said in a statement.

Janine Migden-Ostrander, counsel for the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, issued a statement declaring, "With traditional local telephone competition in jeopardy, the last thing consumers need is for their new choices to lack any safeguards."

After declaring VoIP under the jurisdiction of the FCC, the agency must now determine the regulatory obligations of Internet telephony. Exactly what those obligations will be is part of larger regulatory process under way at the FCC examining all IP-enabled services. The FCC projects the review will be completed "sometime in the spring."

By then, the 109th Congress will be under way and under siege by a broad range of technology interests, along with distance carriers and, of course, the Baby Bells, to make significant changes to the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

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