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Can VoIP Providers Block Certain Calls?

Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission sent a letter to Google, asking the search giant to explain how its Google Voice service works, how many people are using it, and how much money it makes ?information Google has not disclosed publicly. The inquiry was launched a couple of weeks after AT&T sent a letter to the FCC, alleging that Google may be “systematically blocking telephone calls…. in certain rural communities.”

The inquiry raises a big question: Do providers of over-the-Web calling services have to complete all calls? As of today, such companies — called, in industry lingo, VoIP providers — aren’t considered to be telcos, though they often act as such. Some of them, such as Skype, don’t charge for many services. And these Web-calling outfits aren’t required to complete all calls. Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, writes that the FCC “inquiry should be more far-reaching than this relatively isolated case. We learned recently that another VoIP provider,, reserved the right to block calls to rural areas.”

There’s another aspect to this inquiry, of course: AT&T and its supporters are firing back at Google after being grilled by the FCC over delays in approving Google Voice mobile app. On Oct. 6, AT&T announced that it will abolish its old practices and allow Web-calling applications onto its wireless network. It’s unclear whether, under AT&T’s definition, Google Voice qualifies as such an app.

In either case, “today’s letter, although over a relatively minor aspect of a relatively minor service, raises an issue of far greater magnitude: the scope of the agency’s regulatory authority, and the continued erosion of lines dividing regulated and unregulated services as the Internet ecosystem continues to multiply and divide,” Stifel Nicolaus analyst Rebecca Arbogast wrote in an Oct. 9 note.

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