Lawmakers seek FCC probe into Google Voice

WASHINGTON Thu Oct 8, 2009 5:26pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives called on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Google Inc's ability to block calls to rural telephone exchanges.

Google's Voice service is at the heart of a dispute between the world's largest Internet search company and Apple Inc over why Google's voice application is not available on the popular iPhone.

AT&T Inc, the exclusive carrier for the iPhone in the United States, has argued that Google would have an unfair advantage if Google's Voice service is not subject to the same rules applied to phone operators.

Google said Apple rejected it. But Apple said it was still studying it because the application alters the iPhone's telephone functionality and user interface.

"We are formally requesting an investigation by the FCC into the nature and function of Google Inc's voice service," the lawmakers wrote in an October 7 letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

An FCC spokeswoman on Thursday declined to comment on the letter. The FCC has already sought information from Google, Apple and AT&T, the biggest U.S. telephone carrier.

Citing media reports, AT&T has said the Google Voice service was blocking costly calls to phone numbers in certain rural areas in order to cut down on expenses. Phone companies are banned from blocking calls.

An AT&T spokesperson said on Thursday that once policymakers collect the data, they can determine if Google is enjoying a "double-standard."

In 2007, the FCC told carriers they could not restrict calls to avoid fees associated with adult chat lines or free conference calls by companies routing calls through rural carriers in order to generate fees.

The spat prompted an attorney for some rural carriers, Ross Buntrock, to file a letter on October 1 with the FCC to complain that AT&T is refusing to pay its bills to rural carriers.

"The only difference between Google's alleged call blocking and AT&T's refusal to pay terminating access charges for conference and chat-line calls is that the (local carriers) are forced to incur the costs of terminating AT&T's customers' traffic," Buntrock wrote.

A Google spokesperson said on Thursday that for AT&T to invoke rural America while AT&T is behind in its payments to rural carriers is "the height of cynicism."

Google has said it is not a traditional phone service because it is a Web software tool and should not be regulated like telephone companies.

In the letter, the 20 lawmakers including House Energy Commerce Committee members Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican and Charlie Melancon, a Louisiana Democrat, said they find Google's position "ill conceived and unfair to our rural constituents."

They also said that they are concerned that the market and support for universal service will be undermined if Google is allowed to operate its telephone services outside of the rules that govern carriers.

"A company should be able to evade compliance with important principles of access and competition set forth by the FCC by simply self-declaring it is not subject to them without further investigation," the lawmakers wrote.

(Reporting by John Poirier; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Bernard Orr)

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