Pressure on Google over blocked calls

Pressure is growing on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to come down on tech giant Google for blocking access to certain telephone numbers with its Google Voice service.

The issue involves fees that traditional phone companies are forced to pay to connect calls, but from which Google argues it is exempt because it is a Web-enabled phone service.

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AT&T was the first to raise concerns, and the operators of free conference call lines joined in, telling the FCC this week that Google is violating federal rules and hurting their businesses.

Google admits that it is blocking some numbers to rural areas with high connection fees, including adult chat lines and some free conference calls.

“Google shouldn’t be able to tell consumers where they can call and where they can’t,” said David Erickson, president of the Free Conferencing Corp. based in Long Beach, Calif., a company that set up conference calls for President Barack Obama when he was campaigning in 2008.

Erickson recently came to Washington to meet with the FCC, urging the agency to put a stop to the call-blocking. But Google said companies like his intentionally drive phone traffic to rural carriers that charge higher-than-normal connection fees.

Google said that while it has found a way to block fewer calls, “the bottom line is that we still believe the commission needs to repair our nation’s broken carrier compensation system,” wrote Google’s telecom lobbyist Richard Whitt in a company blog post last week. “The current system simply does not serve consumers well and these types of schemes point up the pressing need for reform.”

The issue involves the complicated rate system phone carriers must pay to each other when calls are connected between multiple networks — a system the FCC has been looking into changing for two years. It also touches on another hot-button topic for the FCC dealing with the nature of Web-enabled services, such as Google’s products, and whether they should be treated differently from traditional phone services. The agency has been reviewing that issue for four years.

Some members of Congress are also paying attention, especially now that the FCC is considering implementing rules that would force Internet service providers to treat all traffic equally. A bipartisan group of 20 House members, including Reps. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), John Shimkus (R-Ill.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Lee Terry (R-Neb.) and Charlie Melancon (D-La.), sent a letter to the FCC last month asking for a formal investigation of Google Voice. The FCC has not yet responded to the letter.

In the letter, the lawmakers — many of them from rural districts — said Google should be held to the same rules as other phone carriers, and they worried “that the market and support for universal service will be undermined.”

AT&T first asked the FCC to look into Google Voice, alleging that the service prevents consumers from calling certain rural phone numbers and, therefore, violates federal call-blocking rules. The FCC asked Google for more information on the service, but is not formally investigating the call-blocking.

Google initially said it is not subject to rules for phone carriers because it not a traditional phone service. It also said Google Voice is intended to complement phone companies' services, not compete with them. In a filing with the FCC last week, Google said it had reduced the list of numbers to which it would block calls to fewer than 100.

Free conference call lines, such as Erickson’s company, make up a sizable portion of those numbers that are still blocked.

Erickson's company, FreeConferenceCall.com, uses rural numbers to direct traffic to “underused parts of the telephone network,” he said. But rural carriers also charge the long-distance carriers, including AT&T, Qwest and Verizon, higher charges to connect those calls. Erickson’s company gets a cut of that revenue.

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Obama’s campaign used thousands of FreeConferenceCall.com accounts to place “millions of minutes’ ” worth of calls leading up to the election, Erickson said. And nonprofits such as the Red Cross and government agencies with strapped budgets also make use of the free service.

But the practice of diverting calls to high-cost areas, known as “traffic pumping,” and the resulting disputes over access payments between carriers, is reaching a level that will likely require FCC action. Still, the issue is not a top priority for the agency, which is consumed with considering net neutrality regulations and developing a national broadband strategy. The FCC declined to comment on the Google Voice inquiry.

Erickson said his business model is not a nefarious scheme, but simply a competitive practice. “The idea that Google’s pricing problems should fall upon the FCC to fix is a bit too much to ask,” he said in a letter to the FCC this week. “We need to enforce the rules and laws that are in place, and Google needs to stop acting like silence from the FCC means Google can do whatever it likes.”

But other conference call providers have a problem with both Google and Free Conferencing Corp., accusing both of taking advantage of the system.

David Frankel, the chief executive for ZipDX, said his conference call company charges the user directly, instead of seeking a cut of the fee from large phone companies -- something he says Free Conferencing Corp. does.  He wants the FCC to investigate both matters.

Regardless of how the FCC ultimately addresses “traffic pumping” schemes, AT&T said the FCC should not allow Google to have a competitive advantage by blocking calls.

“Google Voice has claimed for itself a significant advantage over its competitors by openly flaunting the FCC’s call-blocking prohibition,” an AT&T spokesman said Thursday. “The FCC cannot, through inaction or otherwise, give Google a special privilege to play by its own rules.”