Reading the FCC Tea Leaves on VOIP

In trying to interpret the public statements of policy-makers, sometimes what’s most important is what isn’t said. FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin, interviewed in BusinessWeek, hints at the Commission’s road map for voice over IP:

Q: So what’s next?

There are currently three petitions
pending before the commission. The Pulver petition asks, among other
things, that a call from one computer to another computer be treated as
an information, not a telephone, service. The two others from Vonage
and AT&T are
asking for decisions on how to treat calls that use voice over IP for
just one piece of the call’s journey, such as transport or to connect
to customers in their homes.

The commission is hopeful that we’ll make a decision on the Pulver
petition soon. We’ll also release a notice of proposed rulemaking that
will solicit comments from relevant parties on many of the questions
that have arisen about how we should be treating the VoIP services that
currently are offered.

The tip-off is his separation of the Pulver petition from the other
two.  The FCC has been indicating for some time that it plans to
open a general proceeding on VOIP, which will seek comment but not yet
adopt any binding rules.  Last month, though, Chairman Powell’s
legal advisor told reporters that the FCC was thinking about ruling
early on the AT&T and Pulver petitions. 

Why is this important?  If the FCC takes any action on the Pulver
petition, it will be to grant it.  Otherwise, it would just roll
it into the larger proceeding.  Similarly, the only reason to act
separately on the AT&T petition is to deny it, and subject VOIP
backbone traffic to inflated access charges.  Local phone
companies have been pushing the FCC to do just that. 

If in fact the FCC has decided to lump the AT&T petition into the
general rulemaking proceeding, it’s good news for VOIP.