Pulver Counsel Pans Telecom Reform Bill

Attorney for VoIP outfit fears sweeping telecom reform will only add to IP services rules and regulations.

By Roy Mark | Posted Aug 1, 2005
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WASHINGTON -- A major telecom reform bill iintroduced last week by Sen. John Ensign brought the Nevada Republican a blitz of favorable comments and praise. Think tanks and IT trade groups alike rushed to praise the "sweeping" and "timely" legislation.

Not so fast, said Pulver.com general counsel Jonathan Askin.

"We'll be stuck with another five years of implementing it and 15 years of litigation," Askin told internetnews.com. "It's a definitional shell game. Miraculously, a telecom service becomes an information service."

The legislation seeks to level the playing field between all advanced communications services with a deregulatory approach to how services are categorized. Askin said the bill, in fact, will likely create more rules and regulations for Internet Protocol (IP) developers and providers and Voice over Internet providers in particular.

For Askin, the issue is not what the Ensign bill removes from the 1996 Telecommunications Act, but what it leaves in. "It imposes 'social obligations' on standalone VoIP providers," he said. "It puts regulations on previously unregulated companies."

The social obligations will likely involve wire tapping accommodations, handicap access and Universal Service Fund obligations. The FCC already has imposed E911 obligations on VoIP providers, a decision Askin claims forces Internet telephone providers to develop "backward looking" technology.

Pulver.com Enterprises controls approximately 20 operating companies touching various aspects of IP-based communications. The company's founder, Jeff Pulver, first gained Washington's attention when he successfully petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to exempt his computer-to-computer Free World Dialup from FCC regulations.

If the Ensign bill ultimately passes, Askin predicts, "We'll be sucked back into a regulatory regime we never asked for. We'll be brought into a regulatory quagmire."

That day, however, may be a long time in coming.

Despite the favorable publicity generated by Ensign's Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act, the bill has yet to have hearing in the Senate and companion legislation in the House of Representatives has not been introduced. In both houses, competing legislation less sweeping in scope are working their way through the legislative process.

"In the House, we're trying to narrowly target telecom reform and it will probably only deal with IP services," a Capitol Hill staff lawyer told internetnews.com. "I'll be surprised if we get something on the president's desk by the end of the 109th Congress."

The current two-year Congress is scheduled to adjourn late in 2006.

Askin said he favors legislation introduced last year by Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) that called for exempting IP services from telephone access charges. The bill did carry some federal obligations on VoIP providers but excluded applications, such as Pulver's Free World Dialup, that do not interconnect with the public switched network.

The legislation failed when lawmakers feared the potential revenue loss to states.

"It got mired down and done in by forces beyond our control," he said. "And don't think the entrenched power structure in Washington isn't going to have a big say in this [Ensign legislation]."

Askin, a former senior attorney in the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau, said what is really needed is "unfettered competition at the application layer. We need to combine the free market with IP technology. We need for either Congress or the FCC to embrace an Internet freedom empowerment principle."

Fighting words, perhaps. But then, Askin identifies himself on his business card as a "Wartime Consigliere."

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