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Vonage Asks Feds For Help, Solves Clearwire Blocking

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Vonage Solves Clearwire Blocking Problem, Asks Feds For Help

April 22, 2005

By Heather Forsgren Weaver

WASHINGTON-Vonage Holding Co., the largest independent Voice over Internet Protocol provider, has solved the problem at least one customer was having when Clearwire Corp. blocked access to Vonage's Voip service, said Jeffrey Citron, Vonage chief executive officer, on Capitol Hill Tuesday. Clearwire is a new wireless Internet service venture backed by cellular pioneer Craig McCaw.

Citron said Vonage is still investigating what remedies it has against Clearwire because Clearwire is an information service.

The debate about what constitutes an information service vs. what makes a telecom service has ramifications for everything with requirements about open access, universal service, enhanced 911 and law-enforcement surveillance.

The Supreme Court recently heard oral argument in the Brand X cases-the National Cable & Telecommunications Association vs. Brand X Internet Services and the Federal Communications Commission vs. Brand X. Brand X Services Inc. is an independent ISP that wanted access to a cable system to offer its services to the cable operator's cable-modem customers. The company was blocked when the FCC declared cable-modem service an information service and thus not required to provide open access to other companies.

The FCC recently reached a consent agreement with Madison River Communications of Merbane, N.C., which included a $15,000 fine and an agreement that the local telephone company would stop blocking Vonage. It is unclear whether the FCC could come to the same conclusion with cable companies or wireless Internet service providers like Clearwire. The Supreme Court's ruling in Brand X is likely to add more clarity.

Citron said Clearwire admitted to blocking Vonage and said it blocked anything as high as 64 kilobits per second-the amount of bandwidth necessary for voice-but Citron said this was not accurate.

"When we contacted Clearwire they told us that they don't handle applications of 64 k. That is obviously not the truth because we have worked with the customer to use another port. That customer has their service, and it works fine. The network is fine. No one is being harmed.

The towers didn't melt down. Nothing was destroyed. Every time a customer chooses Clearwire, it won't work until they call me and we change a few things in the settings, and all of the sudden the service starts working again," said Citron.

Citron was participating on a panel on Voip blocking sponsored by the Congressional Internet Caucus.

Panelists disagreed about how widespread Voip blocking is since the problem came to light when the FCC reached its consent decree with Madison River.

"The number of instances of blocking can be counted on one or two hands," said Dan Brenner, NCTA senior vice president of law and policy.

"It is not benign. It is not a fluke. It will happen more and more," said Citron. "You will see more blocking unless there is some mechanism in place and some enforcement occurs."

Help for Citron may be on the way. The leadership of the House Commerce Committee is drafting a telecommunications-reform bill that will allow broadband consumers access to any lawful application, Brendon Weiss, legislative director for Vito Fosella (R-N.Y.), told telecom lawyers at a separate gathering Tuesday evening. "Consumers should be able to access and use any lawful application," said Weiss.

Citron said he is worried that if Congress does not require access to all lawful applications and if it speeds up the end of the digital TV transition and unlicensed spectrum becomes available, he will have to deal with thousands of wireless Internet service providers that try to block access to Vonage.

"Imagine if they do allow unlicensed in the TV band and there are thousands of tiny wireless ISPs, and I have to go talk to each and every one of them about how they have to open up the network. I just don't have the money to have to go negotiate with 1,000 different network operators because each is blocking my service," said Citron.

When asked what Congress should do about the blocking problem, if there is one, the panelists again disagreed because cable does not want to lose its "information services" label.

"It is not easy to have the FCC interpret basic words," said Brenner. "What is easy is enforcement-to get a quick and responsive answer from the regulator. And if the regulator is not responsive, Congress should sit on them."

"Under what law does the FCC have the authority to bring enforcement action against a cable operator?" asked Citron. "There are only two choices if the FCC is going to do something honest. The first is to bring everything under the FCC's regulatory authority. The second is just to stop and do everything under antitrust."

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