Blog Post

AT&T to Google: So You Wanna Be a Phone Company?

A few months, ago when covering the launch of Google Voice, I wrote a post entitled: Meet Google, Your Phone Company. That headline sums up why Google’s voice service has drawn the ire of everyone from AT&T (s T) to Apple (s AAPL.) Today, Ma Bell asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Google Voice on the grounds that it was preventing consumers from calling certain numbers, which AT&T argues violates the principles of net neutrality. The letter is worthy of a pay-per-view event. It also reveals how the Google Voice service works.

AT&T alleges:

Numerous press reports indicate that Google is systematically blocking telephone calls from consumers that use Google Voice to call telephone numbers in certain rural communities. By blocking these calls, Google is able to reduce its access expenses. Other providers, including those with which Google Voice competes, 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.” The Bureau expressed concern that call blocking “may degrade the reliability of the nation’s telecommunications network.” Google Voice thus has claimed for itself a significant advantage over providers offering competing services.

Google, of course, doesn’t agree with such a portrayal of Google Voice and argues that since it’s not a traditional phone service, it shouldn’t be treated as such. The company instead refers to it as an Internet application.

AT&T obviously disagrees with Google’s description, writing in its letter to the FCC:

But in reality, “Google Voice” appears to be nothing more than a creatively packaged assortment of services that are already quite familiar to the Commission. Among other things, 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.6 For its part, is undeniably a common carrier subject to the Commission’s call blocking prohibition; it markets itself as a “National CLEC” and has certified to the Commission that it operates as a local exchange carrier.

Now if Google’s description is true, then pretty much every service that uses VoIP in the middle of the network should be referred to as an Internet application. My view is pretty close to that of an average consumer. As I wrote in my Meet Google, Your Phone Company post:

The mobile app for Google Voice uses the regular PSTN connection to place a call to Google Voice, which then places a call out to the person you need to reach. Since these calls (and SMS messages) originate from your Google Voice, they display your Google Voice number for the recipients. The service needs a data connection but it isn’t necessary to have a Wi-Fi connection to place and receive calls. The wireless number you buy from the cell phone company becomes less relevant. The Google Voice app essentially reduces the cell phone carrier to a dumb pipe.

In its letter to the FCC, AT&T wrote that the commission “cannot, through inaction or otherwise, give Google a special privilege to play by its own rules while the rest of the industry, including those who compete with Google, must instead adhere to (FCC) regulations.” (see related post from GigaOM Pro, sub required: How Google Voice Could Change Communication)

AT&T claims that this is a breach of network neutrality rules, but organizations such as Free Press are dismissing the carrier’s claims as political stunts that have “absolutely nothing to do with” such rules, insisting that the “spats between two dueling giants cannot be allowed to stand in the way of Internet freedom.”

This is the second time Ma Bell and Google have tussled over Google Voice. In the last round, Apple was also involved and FCC had to jump in to play referee. The results of that round are still pending — the Google Voice app for the iPhone is still missing in action.

13 Responses to “AT&T to Google: So You Wanna Be a Phone Company?”

  1. How is it that they cant sort it out. I agree parkite there is a point but cant they make a plan already.
    Im sticking with Net10 I get my international calls for 15cents per minute, it simple and there is non of the drama. simplicity is better

  2. Brett Glass

    “Network neutrality” crusader Free Press is defending Google because it receives money from Google. (The group claims that it does not accept corporate contributions, but Google has often disguised its contributions to “astroturf” groups as “individual” contributions from its executives and/or by “laundering” the cash through nonprofit foundations.) Just goes to show you what money can buy inside the DC Beltway.

    • Peter Rad

      Brett, stop being a mouth piece for the USTA. I don’t quite get the quotes around Net Neutraility but even if Google does donate to Free Press, that isn’t any different than the numerous astroturf groups that AT&T and VZ fund including the USISPA and the USTA.

      This is just AT&T deflecting the conversation from the fact that they are scared of Google — and most people just want the telco to be a pipe. Bunch of reasons for that – namely because they don’t understand innovation — or there wouldn’t be a Vonage or a Google Voice.

      • Brett Glass

        You obviously don’t know who I am. I’m an independent wireless ISP; in fact, I was the world’s first WISP. The members of the USTA are engaged in anticompetitive tactics designed to put operators like me out of business, and I certainly would never be their “mouthpiece.”

        I see no indication that AT&T is “scared” of Google, but applaud their exposure of Google’s hypocrisy. Google is a far greater threat to Internet users than is AT&T.

    • YES Brett, you are absolutely CORRECT. Google IS the villain in this story. They always want the long end of the stick. They want EVERYTHING free, like content, infrastructure, etc… They are REMORAS that have gotten larger than the sharks, and cry louder too.

  3. We Already Know Neutral Networks Don’t Like Rural Areas.
    Perhaps the budget for Google Voice is not be as much as it should be?
    Maybe they plan to make AT&T and the Ma’ Bell Gang look really stupid later?

    CLEC, LEC, National Provider, Certification or not, Google, if it is blocking calls should just stop. I mean what’s the point here? Google is a cash cow. They’re only cutting off their own nose despite their face. Surely whatever “black magic” Google Voice does voicemail/telephony/switching and perhaps even voice recognition, can be replicated at costs not prohibitive to Rural customer networks.

  4. I thought Level3 was the company that was providing Google with the pool of phone numbers, call-termination services etc; looks like it is actually and not Level3.

    How about the following lead for a blog post : finds a big VOIP custmer in Google .

  5. I thought Level3 was the company that was providing Google with the pool of phone numbers, call-termination services etc; looks like it is actually and not Level3.

    How about the following lead for a blog post : finds a big VOIP customer in Google .