A Call for Federal VoIP Rules

The federal government must have regulatory authority over VoIP if the technology is to develop quickly and uniformly in the United States, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell said today.

“The first step is to establish federal jurisdiction,” Powell said in his keynote at the VON 2004 trade show here, adding that he will present the question to other commissioners for a vote.

The move comes after several bills aimed at accomplishing the same thing have stalled or have been watered down through the legislative process. Court cases in Minnesota and elsewhere have generally found that VoIP is a data service, and therefore is exempt from state telecom tariffs.

However, the FCC doesn’t want to dither while a slew of potentially contradictory court rulings pile up, this according to Jeffrey J. Carlisle, chief of the FCC’s wireline. Powell did not say if he will raise the issue at the next meeting, but Carlisle expects it will be in the near future.

Powell has sided with the VoIP community, calling for a hands-off approach.

“This is a different way and deserves a different regulatory proposition,” Powell said.

In his address, he said we need a Constitution for the regulation of VoIP, as he invoked the founding fathers who established a flexible framework that encouraged interstate commerce.

But while casting himself as a patriot for freedom from government interference, Powell is well aware that he operates in a highly political sphere where angering the wrong people can trigger calls for resignation.

He said he’s unlikely to pick a fight over the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which defines the rules that let local police and governments wiretap a phone line without the owner’s knowledge. There are useful elements to the CALEA, but some definitions are dated, because they draw bold lines between phone calls and Internet use, which are distinctions that are increasingly unnecessary.

“There’s one thing the government has a first and profound responsibility to do &#151 protect its citizens from harm. That’s not an economic question,” Powell said. “It is very likely that VoIP will have far reaching consequences of anything the commission has done or will do,” Powell said. “We must get this right.”

Powell said he’s received no grief from the Department of Justice or the Bush administration. Rather, officials have asked Powell and the FCC for technical guidance.

Another priority for Powell is to simplify the inter-carrier exchange system, which determines the prices companies must pay to send traffic over other rivals’ networks.

Cathy Martine, who leads VoIP efforts for AT&T, spoke after Powell. She was supportive of a “light regulatory touch” on VoIP but stressed that all telecoms must be treated alike.

Issues like CALEA and e911 are on AT&T’s roadmap, although emergency calling has not proved a top priority for the current buyers of AT&T’s CallVantage VoIP service.

Adapted from Internetnews.com.

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