FCC To Investigate Google Voice Service


Sharon Gillett, chief of the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau, penned a letter Friday to Google's attorney informing the company of the inquiry. In the letter, the FCC asks Google to answer a series of questions by Oct. 28 in light of pending FCC proceedings about access stimulation and the commission's interest in ensuring that "broadband networks are widely deployed, open, affordable and accessible to all consumers."

The FCC wants Google to explain how Google Voice calls are routed and whether calls to particular phone numbers are restricted and how those restrictions are implemented. In addition, the FCC wants to know how Google Voice users are informed of the restrictions, whether the functions are free or paid for both now and in the future.

The letter further asks of Google, "Please explain specifically what is meant by 'invitation-only.' How many users of Google Voice are there at this time? Are there any plans to offer Google Voice on other than an invitation-only basis?

Also, the FCC wants to know how Google identifies phone numbers to which it restricts calls and why, and whether Google contracts with third parties to obtain inputs for Google Voice, such as access to telephone numbers, transmission of calls and interconnection with local telephone networks.

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Google Voice is not yet available, but the company is accepting applications for invitations by providing names and e-mail addresses through Google's Web site.

The free service will include call-screening, call blocking, voicemail transcripts, conference calling, call recording and more, according to Google.

Google Voice has come under fire from traditional telephone carriers, including AT&T.

Google attorney Richard Whitt of the Washington Telecom and Media Counsel, responded Friday afternoon to AT&T's complaints by noting that Google restricts calls to certain local phone carriers' numbers because they charge exorbitant termination rates for calls and they "also partner with adult sex chat lines and 'free' conference-calling centers to drive high volumes of traffic," he wrote in Google's public policy blog.

"This practice has been called 'access stimulation' or 'traffic pumping' [clearly by someone with a sense of humor]. Google Voice is a free application and we want to keep it that way for all our users -- which we could not afford to do if we paid these ludicrously high charges," Whitt wrote.

Among the differences, according to Whitt, are that Google Voice is a free, Web-based application and not subject to common carrier laws and that it is not intended to be a replacement for traditional phone service.

On Thursday, 20 legislators including U.S. Rep. Steven Buyer (R-Ind.) sent a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski requesting an investigation into Google Voice's practices.

"Concerns arose after media reports confirmed Google maintains it has the right to block calls to certain telephone exchanges because it does not believe Google Voice falls under the jurisdiction of the FCC and specifically the common carrier service," Buyer said in a statement. "A bipartisan group of my colleagues, and I, are concerned when a service provider unfairly blocks calls to certain exchanges -- regardless of the technology used to initiate the call, whether it would be Web-based applications or traditional phone services."