Google strikes back against AT&T in broadband spat

Google (GOOG) has struck back against AT&T (T) in the ongoing battle over net neutrality, the idea that broadband providers like AT&T should generally treat all web content equally and not discriminate against services that compete with their own offerings. In a letter to the FCC, AT&T complained that Google Voice, the search giant's voice-over-Internet service, is violating net neutrality principles.

In response, Google said that AT&T's complaint "just doesn't fly." And some experts and pro-network neutrality advocates suggest that the idea of AT&T, a longtime opponent of net neutrality, now complaining about supposed violations is, well, absurd.
"This is nonsensical because Google Voice is not an internet service provider. It does not route Internet traffic," Lucas Gonze, a broadband network expert and former Director of Product Management at Yahoo! Music, told DailyFinance. "It's bamboozlement for AT&T to pretend that there's no difference between what they do and what Google Voice does."

It's also strikes some as amusing. As Techcrunch's MG Siegler points out, "what's hilarious here is that AT&T (and Verizon) just got done saying that net neutrality should not apply to wireless communications mere days ago."

Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, a Washington, DC-based pro-net neutrality group, called AT&T's letter a "red herring" in a statement.

"It appears to be a political stunt to distract attention from the important work the FCC has begun on Network Neutrality," Turner said. "Whether Google Voice should be subject to the same rules as a traditional telephone service has absolutely nothing to do with Net Neutrality rules."

In its letter to the FCC, which last Monday proposed rules designed to ensure net neutrality, AT&T charges Google with trying to establish a double standard.

"According to Google, non-discrimination ensures that a provider 'cannot block fair access' to another provider," AT&T wrote. "But that is exactly what Google is doing when it blocks calls that Google Voice customers make to telephone numbers associated with certain local exchange carriers."

The FCC "cannot, through inaction or otherwise, give Google a special privilege to play by its own rules," AT&T concluded.

Specifically, AT&T seems upset that Google is blocking some calls to rural customers -- a practice which AT&T and other telecom providers tried to implement themselves only two years ago, but were banned from doing so by the FCC.

In response, Google acknowledged that it "does restrict certain outbound calls from our Web platform to these high-priced destinations."

"But despite AT&T's efforts to blur the distinctions between Google Voice and traditional phone service, there are many significant differences," Google's chief DC policy point man Rick Whitt wrote, highlighting the following three:

- Unlike traditional carriers, Google Voice is a free, Web-based software application, and so not subject to common carrier laws.
- Google Voice is not intended to be a replacement for traditional phone service -- in fact, you need an existing land or wireless line in order to use it. Importantly, users are still able to make outbound calls on any other phone device.
- Google Voice is currently invitation-only, serving a limited number of users.
"The FCC's open Internet principles apply only to the behavior of broadband carriers -- not the creators of Web-based software applications," Whitt concluded. "Even though the FCC does not have jurisdiction over how software applications function, AT&T apparently wants to use the regulatory process to undermine Web-based competition and innovation."

"We feel comfortable that [Google Voice] is not a regulated service," Whitt told Reuters. "It is a service that originates from an online platform."

With technology evolving so quickly and and broadband penetration and speeds on the rise, there is a clear need for federal guidelines delineating the rules of the broadband road -- for both wireline and wireless service.

It's clear that all parties in this debate, from the telecom and cable companies to Google and other content and service providers, are aggressively seeking to advance their interests. The intensity of the feelings on all sides proves how important the issue of broadband policy is to the future of U.S. commerce.

But to many observers, AT&T's letter to the FCC simply doesn't pass the smell test.

"The FCC certainly should not let AT&T's misdirection delay its rule-making on the separate issue of Net Neutrality," said Turner, of Free Press. "Spats between two dueling giants cannot be allowed to stand in the way of Internet freedom."
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