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FCC To Probe Google Voice Over Call Blocking 86

Posted by Soulskill
from the keep-your-eye-on-the-ball dept.
Over the past few months, we've been following the FCC's inquiry into Apple and AT&T after they rejected Google Voice from the App store. A couple weeks ago, AT&T did their best to deflect the FCC by dangling a shiny object in front of them — the use of Google Voice to block calls. It now appears the FCC has taken the bait, as they've sent an official inquiry to Google asking why the service restricts connections. "In its letter, the FCC asked Google to describe how its calls are routed and whether calls to particular numbers are prohibited. It also asks for information on how restrictions are implemented, how Google informs customers about those restrictions, whether Google Voice services are free, and if Google ever plans to charge for them in the future." Richard Whitt has already posted a brief explanation on Google's Public Policy blog. "The reason we restrict calls to certain local phone carriers' numbers is simple. Not only do they charge exorbitant termination rates for calls, but they also partner with adult sex chat lines and 'free' conference calling centers to drive high volumes of traffic." The FCC also received a push from members of the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
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FCC To Probe Google Voice Over Call Blocking

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  • Fine (Score:5, Informative)

    by sopssa (1498795) * <sopssa@email.com> on Friday October 09, 2009 @07:15PM (#29699903) Journal

    AT&T receives goverment aids so the rural area's get supported too, and then by law they have to support them. Google doesn't receive any money to run the *free* service, and they couldn't provide it as free if they had to support calls to those rural areas too (who are obviously abusing the system with their premium priced sex lines and so on)

    Google could always make a system where users could call to those areas with credit so users cover the costs themself, but I dont see why they would need to.

    • by ZackSchil (560462)

      Not sex lines necessarily, but "free" or cheap teleconference services that you call in to using a standard area code number. Connecting to this area code costs the phone company a fortune, but you never see an additional charge on your bill because you get charged by the minute.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by jimmydevice (699057)

      Apparently AT&T misplaced or spent that cash on something other than rural service. I would guess 90% of the people in my county do not have access to any wired broadband. I talked to the telco reps and they stated they need at least 300 customers. That's difficult when the minimum lot size is 5 acres.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by conureman (748753)

        Does AT&T respond to congressional pressure? Sometimes you can get your congressman to give 'em a phone call or whatever it is they do. It's called "Constituent Service" and in rural areas it's kinda what they're supposed to be doing. Why do you think they build "bridges to nowhere" in Alaska and stuff like that. I used to always get my way with the phone providers (after the usual hellish delays) by calmly and persistently explaining that they were incorrect, and if I couldn't wear them down into acqui

        • by PRMan (959735)

          AT&T never took my threats seriously but I got calls from presidents and vice presidents AFTER I contacted the PUC. But now I just don't do business with them anymore. Why bother when they are actively hostile toward their customers.

          Vonage provides a nice service much cheaper and is happy to have me.

      • by nxtw (866177)

        The USF does not cover broadband Internet service.

        • by AK Marc (707885)
          Depending on how you state it, the USF does cover much of the cost of broadband service.
    • by coaxial (28297)

      AT&T receives goverment aids so the rural area's get supported too

      This isn't the 1930s anymore. Are you really sure that subsidies are still required?

      • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

        Once the wires were run it no longer actually costs a fortune to connect to those areas.

        However, the telecom companies still charge a fortune for the privilege, and we certainly still pay subsidies to them in the form of an aditional tax that goes straight to the telecoms.

        Maintenance of those areas is more expensive, but nowhere near what they get for supporting them.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by nxtw (866177)

      AT&T receives goverment aids so the rural area's get supported too, and then by law they have to support them.

      The Universal Service Fund [wikipedia.org] is what you are thinking of. It is a tax imposed on phone companies, and some of this money does go to subsidize phone services for low-income and high-cost consumers. The USF is clearly flawed [tmcnet.com], but it does not require that wireless carriers provide rural service. Wireless carriers who get money from the USF do so as "competitive" carriers to the local telephone com

      • by Sarlin (1309837)

        "It is a tax imposed on phone companies"

        I know that is how it reads, but the truth is that it is a tax imposed on the consumer. I pay my own bill plus I sign off on all the telecommunication bills for the company I work for and know that the USF is passed to the consumer. That is why any of the ridiculous plans congress comes up with whereby they say they will just 'tax' an industry (tobacco, telecommunications, oil, etc.) ends up just being more taxation on the private citizen or small businesses. Large corporations like AT&T will NEVER absorb those costs.

        • by nxtw (866177)

          I know that is how it reads, but the truth is that it is a tax imposed on the consumer. I pay my own bill plus I sign off on all the telecommunication bills for the company I work for and know that the USF is passed to the consumer. That is why any of the ridiculous plans congress comes up with whereby they say they will just 'tax' an industry (tobacco, telecommunications, oil, etc.) ends up just being more taxation on the private citizen or small businesses. Large corporations like AT&T will NEVER abso

    • by rs79 (71822)

      One of the things we learned in the DNS wars is the lobbing technique of AT&T. The spend millions of dollars on this, and anywhere you turn you find AT&Y wonks buying dinner and drinks for anybody of import, aside from the lobbying efforts inside DC. Congress critters are so receptive to this it just isn't funny.

      So this thing that's happening now? AT&T bought it and it has nothing to do with the merits of the situation.

      The most cogent write up of this is Lauren Weinstein's: http://lauren.vortex. [vortex.com]

    • I was pretty mystified by the mechanics of the whole scheme described here, so I read a bunch of the sources cited here, and wrote a Wikipedia article on Traffic pumping [wikipedia.org]. Hope it will be useful to others trying to understand this weird regulatory scam.

  • by fermion (181285) on Friday October 09, 2009 @07:38PM (#29700045) Homepage Journal
    I see this more about disclosure than about whether free calls exist on the iPhone(of course, over WiFi they do). Despite the clearly myopic tone of the article, the issue is disclosure.

    For instance, a relative switched to VOIP due to significant costs saving. Though this relative is good at asking questions, several hidden and opportunity costs were never fully disclosed. This person still uses primarily a land line, so when the land line went out for several weeks due to a power disruption, there was very limited phone since she was not comfortable with a cell phone, and many friend in foreign land were never given this number. There there was the excessive costs to make foreign calls, and complex prepaid cards were not an option.

    No matter what we think of Google, we have to admit they play fast and loose with their free services. Long outages, removal of service at the drop of hat by any arbitrary third party. The business model does not allow for end user services, since the end user is not the customer. If Google plays such a game with the phone app, who is going to be blamed? Not Google. Apple will have to take the calls.

    In any case the point is moot. Android sales are expected to dwarf iPhone sales within a few years. There are expected to be many models out this year. Google can supply all these phones with Google Voice and prove that they can reliably serve customers needs. In fact, if Google Voice is as great as everyone says, it would likely be the killer app, the market differentiation, that would make Adroid phones an unbeatable value. Free phone calls. Free email. Why would anyone want anyone else. At that point, Apple would have to include the App.

    • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:25PM (#29700623)

      You don't really understand how google voice works do you?

      Here's a sarter -- there is nothing about google voice that will ever enable free phone calls on a cellphone unless the cellphone service independently allows free phone calls.

      • by Firehed (942385) on Friday October 09, 2009 @10:16PM (#29700921) Homepage

        Unless you have one of those "favorites" things in your cell plan, where you have unlimited calls to 5 numbers (or whatever). Add your GV number as one of your favorites and config your GV account so incoming calls pass the GV caller ID instead of the normal caller pass-through it does, and you effectively have unlimited calling on the cheapest possible plan (not free, but close enough). At that point, it's as cheap as, if not cheaper than, Skype. Couple that with the fact that you can have all of the GV SMS services go over email and that Google now offers push services for many phones, and you're as close to free as you can ever hope.

        I think T-Mobile started it; I saw an ad from AT&T offering a similar thing a couple days ago. I can't imagine Verizon and Sprint are too far off if they're not offering it already since the carriers all seem to mimic each other pretty quickly.

        It's neither perfect nor foolproof, but until you can rig it up so that you have end-to-end VOIP (which is probably only a couple years out; carriers are starting to realize their future is data, not minutes), it's a decent approximation.

        • Unless you have one of those "favorites" things in your cell plan, where you have unlimited calls to 5 numbers (or whatever).

          I thought everybody knew about those promotions, that's why I said, "...unless the cellphone service independently allows free phone calls." It still isn't google giving you the call for free, it is the cell phone provider choosing not to charge you by the minute for those calls (you still must pay the monthly fee).

    • by arminw (717974)

      ...Free phone calls. Free email...

      Free beer, free pizza, everybody wants everything for free these days. Well, TANSTAAFL, (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch) somebody always pays for it, usually the end customer. Free apps from Google aren't free, although they are paid by advertising, all advertisers include the cost of advertising in whatever product or service they provide.
      Flat rates for telephone calls, Internet service, or in some places still even water, are great, except for those few who abu

  • by SoupGuru (723634) on Friday October 09, 2009 @07:40PM (#29700055)
    It's a pretty interesting idea and I'd love to see what improvements are made to it over time.

    I hear Verizon is bragging about their new deal with Google and Android while also stating they're going to support Google Voice. As a Verizon customer I hope that means I can eventually have other Verizon customers call my Google Voice number and get connected to my Verizon cell and not burn any out-of-network minutes. That's definitely a marketable stance to take in contrast to AT&T's.
    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by rcolbert (1631881)
      While I don't think Gvoice is the end-state of the industry, I think it's going to put a lot of pressure on the concept of minutes altogether. Remember when people paid for blocks of time for dial-up access? I think we'd all agree that the new broadband model, although still not perfect, is vastly superior. Once connectivity over the airwaves starts to approach minimal broadband speeds in a pervasive way, I can see a model emerging where people start to pay by bandwidth tiers rather than minutes. Then,
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by thule (9041)
        The problem is that there are regulations for phone companies. These would have to be completely revamped for your idea to work. What is happening with Google is that they are thinking like you are. The problem is that Google has made themselves into a phone company, but don't want to play by phone company rules. They want to treat some phone numbers different than other numbers. A real phone company can't do that. They have to pay the charge back rules no matter what. They have to charge the custome
        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by rcolbert (1631881)
          These are all good thoughts, and the main theme in common is that something has to change. IMO the prime candidate for change is the outdated telephone rules and regulations. The more voice services that are exempt from those rules, the more willing the traditional telephone carriers will be to do away with them wholesale in favor of a more unified approach to data transmission. At the end of the day, it's all bits and bytes floating around from point A to point B. While changing the system isn't going
        • by selven (1556643)
          Google didn't accept public money from the government and the ability to set up phone lines around cities.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by SeanMon (929653)

          The problem is that Google has made themselves into a phone company, [emph. added] but don't want to play by phone company rules.

          This is fundamentally wrong. There is no way to place or receive phone calls without an existing phone service.

          (SMS messages are slightly different because with Google Voice you can send and receive SMS without another phone service. However, no landline phone services (that I know of) support SMS, so I don't believe that's relevent.)

          • by paul248 (536459)

            There is no way to place or receive phone calls without an existing phone service.

            That's not entirely true. Assuming you have a phone number to initialize your account with, you can forward your calls to Gizmo and use a SIP phone.

            • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

              by Anonymous Coward

              Gizmo being a "phone service"...

            • Yup, still true. In your example, Gizmo is the "phone service" the OP mentioned.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by maxume (22995)

      out-of-network minutes aren't particularly likely to exist in 3 or 4 years (Boost is currently setting the stage, charging $50 a month for unlimited voice, with no contract).

  • by Dan667 (564390) on Friday October 09, 2009 @07:56PM (#29700123)
    Would be nice to know who the sellouts are.
  • by Kickboy12 (913888) on Friday October 09, 2009 @07:58PM (#29700131) Homepage

    The FCC was blaming AT&T...
    AT&T said don't look at us, blame Google Voice!
    Google Voice said it's not our fault, it's the use of "traffic pumping" thats causesing high fees
    The guys going the traffic pumping are probably blaming the people running the rural telephone systems...
    The people running the rural telephone systems are just trying to turn a profit in a rural area with few calls being made...

    When everyone is really just trying to make a profit, who is really the bad guy here?

    • by Kesch (943326) on Friday October 09, 2009 @08:23PM (#29700303)

      Well... no. There's no real bad guy here, but it isn't such a cut and dry blame game.

      The FCC starts asking why AT&T is blocking Google Voice on the iPhone.

      AT&T tries to shed some of the heat by changing topics and asking why Google doesn't have to connect these expensive rural providers that AT&T is legally forced to connect to.

      Now, these expensive rural end points are apparently a little slimy since they like to partner with high volume services to draw calls into their network which they can then charge a premium for.

      Of course, Google and AT&T aren't exactly analogous. So it's not clear that Google should be held to the same standards. One company is providing a completely free service while the other receives subscription fees. Also one is providing full phone service complete with a dial tone, while the other is fancy routing for your existing services. Finally, one has gotten government subsidies to support expensive coverage of rural areas while the other has received nothing.

      I appreciate that the FCC is asking these questions though. They're fairly reasonable questions. In fact, the FCC has been fairly competent as of late. They might still be a little weak when it comes to laying the smackdown and righting the wrongs of telecom industry (of which there are a lot). But they have shown active interest in investigating possible abuses, and know the right questions to ask when they show up.

  • oh america (Score:2, Troll)

    by nimbius (983462)
    land of the fee
    home of the paid.

    its always a new player that wants to shake up ma bell, to innovate in ways theyve never tried and to level the playing field for real competition. time and time again its proven by pre-paid legislators, lobbyists and interest groups: you dont fuck with the megacorps. especially not the bells.

    if google manages to get anything out of this, which judging by their resistance to the bush administration in the past they may just, I will be very surprised indeed. Once, ju
    • you dont fuck with the megacorps. especially not the bells.

      And if Google Voice were still just the original Grand Central, I might agree with you 100% ... but remember that AT&T is not stepping on some small upstart company with a good idea and not much else. Google is a megacorp itself, one that even the likes of AT&T would be wise not to take on in court. That's why they're trying to use the regulatory approach first: get Congress to nip Google Voice in the bud and regulate out any possible future competition that might run along similar lines. Fortunatel

  • by thule (9041) on Friday October 09, 2009 @08:04PM (#29700163) Homepage
    I talked to someone that has been in the audio text business (aka 976 or 900 numbers) for years. He explained how this works.

    The ability to make money on a number and charge it to the phone company goes back to old traditions in how phone systems work. When your phone company cannot connect a call directly they pay another company to do it for them. For example, if you called another country and your phone company did not operate in that area, your company would pay the company operating in that area to route the call. The company that completed the call would charge back to your phone company. Your phone company would charge a rate that would generally cover those charges. Since everyone was paying per/min it was pretty easy to figure out rates. As more and more long distance companies popped up over the years this tradition continued.

    What audio text businesses discovered is that they could register themselves as long distance companies and terminate calls in their down systems (no real routing was happening). The numbers were non-explicit chat lines or up-sell ads to adult numbers. They could *still* make money even if the person never uses the 900 adult content number they are upselling.. As it has become easier and easier to purchase equipment to qualify as a long distance carrier people have setup "free" services. Many times these companies are heavily into the audio text business and the "free" services are simply a more "legitimate" way to make money.

    As you can see, this can start to become a big problem for companies that sell flat rate service for domestic calls. The calls are terminating within what would normally be a local call, but the audio text company is charging back a fee that would normally be associated with calling a third world nation with limited phone services.

    AT&T does have some what of a point. Google is treating some numbers differently than others.
    • There is money to be made by carriers through many odd and complex loopholes.

      - Placing calls from certain prefixes to other area codes and/or prefixes can result in actually making money from chargebacks between the carriers, and often times a carrier will partner with the organization doing the calling to give them a slice of the profit.

      - Displaying a certain phone # is another one where money can be made, as a carrier may need to pay to "dip" into another's system to obtain the details of the cal
    • What the hell is audio text?

      Is that like visual smell?

      • by thule (9041)
        Apparently I should have left off the last 't' in text. It should have been spelled audiotex:

        audiotex [pcmag.com]
    • OK, so the problem is the government requiring companies like AT&T to even acknowledge the existence of these "audio text" businesses who take advantage of government regulations. The solution is less government regulation (allow AT&T to give these dishonest companies the finger), not more (force Google to submit to their fraud as well).
  • It's really simple. If you want to be like a phone company, then you need to follow the rules of a telephone company.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      So...if you're providing a free service that is not what the telephone company provides, then you follow the same rules? Good logic, bro.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by _Sprocket_ (42527)

      It's really simple. If you want to be like a phone company, then you need to follow the rules of a telephone company.

      At exactly what point is one "like a phone company"? When you enable communication? Voice? Connect to a phone network? Provide a phone number? Do I need to start following FCC carrier rules because I run a Mumble server?

  • network neutrality (Score:2, Insightful)

    by HazelMotes (568300)
    Those who have been begging for government enforced network neutrality are reaping what they sow, although I'm sure these aren't the fruits they had in mind.
    • by Delwin (599872) *
      Network neutrality (on the phone network instead of internet) would prevent the exact fees that Google is complaining about (and that AT&T hasn't been paying).
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by thule (9041)
        AT&T has been paying those fees. That's the problem. AT&T has to pay the fees because they are a phone company and a phone company *has* to connect those calls. Google is setting itself up as a phone company, but is excluding itself from the rules that phone companies have to play by. The reason there isn't "neutrality" on the phone network is because it really did cost more money to connect to different parts of the world. It wouldn't make sense for a phone company to charge back the same amou
        • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:41PM (#29700725)

          That's the problem. AT&T has to pay the fees because they are a phone company and a phone company *has* to connect those calls. Google is setting itself up as a phone company, but is excluding itself from the rules that phone companies have to play by.

          No, Google is not "setting itself up as a phone company" any more than having answering machine makers are phone companies either.
          Google provides a set of services that is layered on top of POTS, without POTS, google voice would be just as useful as an answering machine without a phone line.

          • by thule (9041) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:49PM (#29700769) Homepage
            Google Voice doesn't just receive calls, it also makes outgoing calls. The outgoing calls could be forwarded call or they could be initiated by the Google Voice user. The Google Voice user is make the call not only via their local provider, but by Google Voice's phone services. It would be like dialing a 10-XXX prefix and then a number. In this way, Google Voice is *exactly* like a 10-XXX long distance provider.
            • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:54PM (#29700795)

              It would be like dialing a 10-XXX prefix and then a number. In this way, Google Voice is *exactly* like a 10-XXX long distance provider.

              Except that google's outgoing calls are carried by an actual long distance provider, google does not have any 'peering' equivalents with local telcos, if they did then they would be subject to the same tarifs that actual long distance carriers are.

              • by thule (9041) on Friday October 09, 2009 @11:14PM (#29701217) Homepage
                I think they might be, otherwise they wouldn't need to block some numbers. They would be paying a flat fee. They blocked the numbers because those numbers are apparently costing them more than a normal number. Why?
                • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                  by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510)

                  I think they might be, otherwise they wouldn't need to block some numbers. They would be paying a flat fee. They blocked the numbers because those numbers are apparently costing them more than a normal number. Why?

                  Because their wholesale carrier charges google based on their own costs.

                  Like I said, if google really were their own carrier they would be subject to the same tariffs that all the other carriers are and this would be a non-issue because they would be following the tariffs. The tariffs are so ridiculously complicated due to regulatory capture that no one just "plugs in" and goes, they first hire an army of lawyers to parse everything and tell them what they must do and can't do.

  • by inio (26835) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:52PM (#29700777) Homepage

    As a Google Voice user, I was confused when I tried to call a free conference call service and my phone never rang. No error message and the web UI acted like it was placing the call. I tried through the dial-in interface and got "that number is not valid" or something to that extent. They could at least explain WHY they're not allowing the call to go through.

    • by jc42 (318812)

      As a Google Voice user, I was confused when I tried to call a free conference call service and my phone never rang. ... They could at least explain WHY they're not allowing the call to go through.

      Maybe what google needs to do is produce a little popup that says something like "This call can't be completed for free because [telco name] charges $x.yz per minute for the connection. Would you like to pay for this connection with a charge card? [YES] [NO]".

      They might include a link to a page explaining the char

  • ...then why does it still work?
  • It's free folks. Not intended to replace your phone line but to enhance it. If you want something better then fork over the money for it and then you should be allowed to connect to whoever you like according to your contract.

    Until they start charging for service and claiming that this can replace you phone service then I don't see a problem.

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