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AT&T brands Google a net neutocrite

A question of traffic pumping

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As the US Federal Communications Commission moves towards official net neutrality rules, AT&T is determined to get in the way.

Big Phone's latest scheme is to brand Google as a net neutrality hypocrite, accusing the web giant of violating the existing FCC open-internet policies with its much-discussed Google Voice web application.

In a letter sent to the US Federal Communications Commission on Friday, AT&T says that in blocking high-priced calls to certain rural areas, Google Voice is violating the fourth principle of the commission's famous 2005 internet policy statement, which says "consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers."

AT&T, you see, is not allowed to block such calls. So it's arguing that Google has undermined competition.

When connecting long distance and wireless calls to their networks, the country's rural local phone companies are allowed to charge about 100 times more than large local outfits. This setup was originally designed as a way of keeping rural operations afloat in the face of low call volumes. But these companies soon realized they could turn a serious profit by partnering with "adult" chat lines and other so-called specialty phone services.

It's a practice known as "traffic pumping." The adult chat line gets routed through some sleepy rural area, and everyone involved comes out with some extra cash. Except for the long-distance carriers. And the lonely guy who dialed the chat line.

Last year, AT&T and several other long-distance outfits complained to the FCC, but for the moment, these big-names are still prohibited from blocking such calls. Meanwhile, Google is blocking them on Google Voice, a web-based application that gives you a single phone number for all calls and SMS messages to your myriad handsets and land lines.

"As President Obama explained earlier this week, the fundamental purpose of the Commission’s Internet Policy Statement is to 'ensure there’s a level playing field' between competitors," AT&T's letter reads. "This vision is apparently not shared by one of the most noisome trumpeters of so-called 'net neutrality' regulation, Google, at least when it comes to its own services.

"Numerous press reports indicate that Google is systematically blocking telephone calls from consumers that use Google Voice to call telephone numbers in certain rural communities. By blocking these calls, Google is able to reduce its access expenses...Google Voice thus has claimed for itself a significant advantage over providers offering competing services."

In response to AT&T letter, Google tossed a post onto its Public Policy blog, accusing Big Phone of comparing apples to oranges. "AT&T is trying to make this about Google's support for an open Internet, but the comparison just doesn't fly," asked Washington telecom and media counsel Richard Whitt. "The FCC's open Internet principles apply only to the behavior of broadband carriers - not the creators of Web-based software applications."

It's true. The FCC's open Internet principles apply only to the behavior of broadband carriers - but that's part of the point AT&T is trying to make. "While Google argues for others to be bound by net neutrality rules, it argues against itself being bound by common carriage, which the Financial Times aptly recognized as an ‘intellectual contradiction.’ Such a contradiction highlights the fallacy of any approach to Internet regulation that focuses myopically on network providers, but not application, service, and content providers," reads a statement from AT&T'S senior vp Robert Quinn.

It's just the latest AT&T's salvo against Google and the net neuts. Earlier this month, the Obama-installed chairman of the FCC moved to turn the commission's open internet principles into hard and fast rules, and in so doing, he argued that these rules should apply to wireless and well as wired connections. AT&T wasted no time objecting to the plan.

"We are concerned...that the FCC appears ready to extend the entire array of net neutrality requirements to what is perhaps the most competitive consumer market in America, wireless services," the company said. "We would thus be very disappointed if it has already drawn a conclusion to regulate wireless services despite the absence of any compelling evidence of problems or abuse that would warrant government intervention."

Meanwhile, the commission is investigating Apple's rejection of Google Voice from the iPhone App Store. Apple claims it didn't reject Google Voice. And AT&T - the iPhone's exclusive US carrier - says it had nothing to do with the rejection/non-rejection. Some have argued that Google Voice poses a direct financial threat to AT&T's own service. Among other things, it lets you send free text messages, make free domestic calls, and phone international numbers on the ultra-cheap.

But you can do all that with other apps on the iPhone. The difference is that Google Voice comes from Google - net neutrality's most conspicuous supporter. ®

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