October 08, 2009

Some Questions Answered Regarding Google Voice and WSJ on Net Neutrality

Greetings. I received a number of queries related to my short posting recently on the NNSquad - Network Neutrality Squad mailing list, regarding the issue of the Wall Street Journal's latest anti-Google piece. That WSJ article appeared to conflate Net Neutrality issues with AT&T's claim that Google is in violation of law by reportedly refusing to terminate Google Voice calls to certain rural exchanges.

The nature of the questions suggested that a bit more background explanation would be useful.

First, to be very clear, the FCC's current actions related to Network Neutrality only involve Internet data traffic per se. They are specifically aimed at ensuring that ISP subscribers have access to Internet sites without unreasonable restrictions. In particular, these FCC actions do not relate to voice call telephone issues, except to the extent that actions by ISPs might interfere with use of VoIP-based services by ISP subscribers.

Most users of conventional voice telephone services are unaware of the complex, arcane, and bizarre interexchange compensation system that has developed over many years. In a "close enough for jazz" nutshell, this system of "per minute" charges moving between firms is supposed to appropriately compensate the various entities involved in placing and terminating voice calls. For a variety of reasons, these rates can vary quite significantly, with rural exchanges typically being at the high end -- that is, receiving the most compensation for calls terminating in those areas.

This disparity has long been of concern, but the issue has in recent years gone critical as some rural telcos found a way to "game" the system to their advantage. By enticing high volume call services to their exchanges (chat lines, sex lines, "free" international calling services, etc.) and then kicking part of the received termination payments back to those services, quite a nice little scam was created at the expense of the other players in the telecom ecosystem. This is the process that is generally known as "traffic pumping" (uh, the term applies whether you're dealing with sex lines or not, by the way ...)

AT&T and other carriers would very much prefer not to feed money into these scams -- and I don't blame them one bit. I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding of current law says that as common carriers they are nonetheless required to allow those calls to proceed and to pay the associated outrageous fees.

Now we come back to Google Voice, an application that is accessed via existing phone lines. It's not a common carrier, so doesn't fall into the legal requirement discussed above. Google has reportedly chosen -- in the same manner that AT&T and other common carriers would likely choose if they were permitted to do so by the FCC -- not to terminate calls into those "scam" service exchanges.

AT&T's attempt to equate this decision with a violation of network neutrality is specious. And Google is under no legal obligation that I can see to terminate those calls. Is there a "moral" obligation to participate in that scam, simply because common carriers are required to terminate into those exchanges? I don't believe so, but more to the point the real issue should be ending the interexchange compensation scams for everyone.

A number of persons asked me about number portability issues. Google's official position on porting numbers to Google Voice would seem to be on this help page.

"Although you can't currently port your existing number to Google Voice, we hope to offer this option in the near future."

One technology Web site has claimed that they know of a few people who have ported their numbers to GV on a purely experimental basis -- I have no independent information to confirm or refute that.

In my earlier posting, I said:

"It might be argued that if it were possible to 'port' your existing conventional phone numbers directly into Google Voice -- effectively making Google your local phone company -- this analysis might change."

To better understand this, it's necessary to realize that there are different scenarios for porting numbers. If a number is ported strictly for inbound calls (e.g., to Google Voice or another service), it effectively amounts to a form of "permanent" inbound call forwarding -- and conventional call forwarding is widely used with all of these services, as you'd expect.

Live inbound calls would still actually terminate to users via local telco landline or wireless lines. Outbound calls would be made via those same lines, and would show the ANI/CNID number identification information associated with those lines (though if the calls were completed via a third party service, the ultimate person called would likely be presented with the ANI/CNID number generated by that service).

This sort of "call forwarding number port" is unlikely, in my opinion, to trigger common carrier requirements on Google Voice or other third party services of the same type.

Another form of number portability is the kind with which most people are more familiar, and is used when you switch a primary access line between landline and/or wireless telcos. This is the scenario I was referring to when I said in my earlier posting:

"... effectively making Google your local phone company."

In other words, if Google offered a service which provided you directly with local dial tone or direct wireless access, replacing the primary access telco previously providing those services to you, I can visualize scenarios under which Google might then be potentially classified as a common carrier and become subject to the same termination requirements as, for example, AT&T. However, I've seen no indication to date that Google has plans to take on such a direct "telco" role.

As always in these situations, the devil is in the details, and the above is merely a summary. But I hope it clarifies some of the issues involved, especially for those readers who weren't -- or aren't -- traditionally trained phone phreaks!


Posted by Lauren at October 8, 2009 10:24 AM | Permalink
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