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Congressmen calling VoIP

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Pickering Leads Congressional Push For FCC Pre-Emption Of States On Voip

October 5, 2004

By Donny Jackson

A group of 62 Congressmen signed a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell that urges the commission to declare that voice-over-IP calls are "inherently interstate" in nature and, therefore, not subject to state economic regulation.
The much-anticipated letter reflects the views of most FCC commissioners that the agency should have sole economic jurisdiction over Voip calls--a position also taken in legislation sponsored by Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), who spearheaded the letter campaign.

"Each of the pending legislative proposals incorporates a fundamental provision that declares Voip services to be inherently interstate in nature. We believe that such an important, but narrow, finding cannot wait for a more comprehensive Voip bill to work its way through the legislative process," the letter states.

"Therefore, we are writing to urge the [FCC] to immediately declare that it has exclusive jurisdiction over Voip services."

Voip services are interstate because their phone numbers are not geographic-sensitive, the phones can be mobile and Voip allows the integration of enhanced offerings, "all without regard to state boundaries," according to the letter, which included the signatures of a bipartisan majority of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

"On the merits, we believe the commission is on very firm ground to rule in such a manner," the letter states. "It simply makes no sense to impose a collage of 52 different regulatory regimes on a service that has an inseverable interstate (and international) component."

This has long been the argument of many Voip providers, and the letter suggests the FCC use Vonage’s declaratory ruling proceeding as the vehicle the commission should use to make its jurisdictional finding.

"We applaud this bipartisan, forward-looking, group of members of Congress for their willingness to take bold action to advance good public policy," VON Coalition spokesman David Svanda said in a prepared statement. "These leaders recognize that Voip is not another flavor of telephone service, but can be a new frontier in communications that requires entirely new approaches."

Svanda is the immediate past president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), but the position is very different from the one held by NARUC general counsel Brad Ramsay. Ramsay said any notion that the FCC would be on "firm ground" legally by making such a jurisdictional finding would "stretching the truth, to say the least."

Ramsay also questioned whether the notion of the FCC being the sole economic regulator for Voip would be good policy. Declaring Voip to be interstate would mean such calls would not be subject to intrastate access charges, which are used in 18 states as the only source of funding state-run universal service programs, Ramsay said.

In addition, such a jurisdictional decision likely would result in Voip providers fighting to delay several pending FCC proceedings on intercarrier compensation and universal service, because almost every proposal would harm Voip providers’ competitive position, according to Ramsay. That position is largely advantageous because of the fact that Voip providers are not subject to all the regulatory obligations and taxes their legacy wireline competitors currently have to endure.

"I have the greatest respect for Congressman Pickering, but it’s a bad idea to regulate based on technology," Ramsay said. "That’s regulators and lawmakers picking winners in the market. The idea is to let them compete on an even playing field and let the market decide."

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