For some years now, the opponents of Network Neutrality have had the same basic fallback strategy: When all else fails, make it about Google. So no surprise that AT&T, in a letter supposedly about the rather technical issue of “traffic pumping” opens with an attack on Google and Net Neutrality. Because if we have learned anything from our national healthcare debate, it is that it is more important to make this about how awful the other side is rather than debate the merits.
To clarify what is actually going on for those just tuning in. First, read this excellent summary of what “traffic pumping” is by Jonathan Lee. For those so mesmerized by my prose you didn't click through, all you need to know for this post is that it costs phone companies a lot of money when you call certain phone numbers like Freeconferencecall.com.
Last week, it became known that Google Voice reserved the right to block use of its service to call Freeconferencecall.com and other such sites. They were not doing so, but they reserved the right to do so. This raised raised hackles, and with good reason. Sometime back, the regular phone companies tried to refuse to connect to these high cost sites. The FCC slapped them down hard and started the current proceeding on whether companies could take advantage of certain rules that pay big bucks for calls that land on certain rural networks by creating businesses that “stimulate traffic” to the high-cost phone network. Now along comes Google Voice and claims the right to refuse to make these calls because it is an information service not a Title II telecom service.
Now this is a serious, if highly technical and wonky, issue. Do we treat Google Voice as an application? As a VOIP provider? As a telecommunications provider? This hinges on how it actually works. And should Google be able to offer a service it claims works like a phone service when it doesn't? Nor do I know how other VOIP providers behave.
But while an interesting and important question, it has nothing to do with network neutrality. Google Voice is either a telecom service with a duty to interconnect and pay the high termination fee, or an application that doesn't have anything to do with the phone system, or an interconnected VOIP provider like Vonage and should be treated like Vonage. But it is easy to make it look like a network neutrality question and try to undermine network neutrality than focus on the merits of either the Google Voice question or the network neutrality question.
Mind you, I would have more sympathy for AT&T if they had filed a real honest to gosh complaint or Petition for Declaratory ruling, like we did when we wanted SMS Text Messaging declared a telecommunication service. That AT&T simply filed a letter in an open docket shows it is much more interested in histrionics than results.
I also can't help but point out that our Text Messaging Petition was put out on public notice more than a year and a half ago. So my sympathy for AT&T barging in the que and carrying on about how while AT&T supports the Internet Policy Statement and a vibrant and competitive internet and blah blah demanding the Commission take immediate action blah blah outrage blah blah is again rather limited.
So bottom line:
1) The Commission may need to look at Google Voice and figure out what it actually is.
2) This really doesn't have jack to do with net neutrality.
3) If AT&T cares about the actual merits, let 'em file something real and wait in line with the rest of us common folk rather than demanding special treatment.