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A Debate On Web Phone Service

Vonage In Print News

A Debate On Web Phone Service

January 5, 2004

By Matt Richtel

Charles Davidson, a self-proclaimed gadget freak in Tallahassee, Fla., began using Internet-based telephone service last week. He can call anyone - not just the other 100,000 pioneers around the nation using such service, but any of the millions of people who use conventional telephones, like his parents in Elizabethton, Tenn.

But Mr. Davidson is more than an adventuresome consumer. As a member of the Florida Public Service Commission, he is a regulator who is eager to see Internet telephone service spread because he predicts it can make the nation's phone services less expensive and richer in features.

That is why Mr. Davidson wants the federal and state governments to let Internet-based phone service blossom, free from regulation, taxes and surcharges. Like a growing number of officials who advocate minimal oversight of the service - including Michael K. Powell, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission - Mr. Davidson says Internet telephone service should be treated just like other unregulated Internet services, including e-mail messaging and Web surfing.

But unlike some proponents of deregulation, Mr. Davidson also has a nagging concern. Because Internet-based phone service rides over traditional telephone or cable lines, it will not work unless the conventional phone network is intact. The government has long regarded that network as a national asset akin to roads and highways, and it is a communications system whose reliability and virtual ubiquity make it the envy of most of the rest of the world. In fact, if users of Internet phones were not able to communicate with all the millions of people still plugged into the conventional telephone network, Internet telephone service would be little more than a hobbyist's experiment.

So Internet telephone service raises a public policy question: If the government does not continue to play a role in ensuring that the telephone network is reliable and universally available, does the nation risk losing a vital asset?

"It's a great question," Mr. Davidson said. "Do we, as a society, want to maintain a policy of 'always on'?"

Mr. Davidson, a former antitrust lawyer appointed to the Florida commission by the governor, Jeb Bush, a Republican, is still weighing his answer. But he says he tends to think that markets are more efficient than regulators - in other words, that laissez-faire can walk hand in hand with "always on."

Some of Mr. Davidson's counterparts in other states sound just as certain that only government referees can preserve the decades-old tradition of universal, reliable telephone service.

"If somebody doesn't regulate this, it's buyer beware," said Loretta Lynch, a member of the California Public Utilities Commission, who was appointed by the former governor, Gray Davis, a Democrat. Ms. Lynch, a lawyer, said the role of the telephone was too important to leave in the hands of market forces. "Telecommunications is essential to our democracy," she said. "It's essential, in fact, to keeping an informed populace."

If the issue were limited to the 100,000 or so customers currently using Internet-based telephones, the debate might remain largely theoretical. But the service seems on the verge of a takeoff.

The field's current leader is the Vonage Holdings Corporation, an Edison, N.J., company with about 80 percent of the market so far. Mr. Davidson is among its customers.

Vonage estimates that it will have 250,000 customers by the end of 2004 and one million by 2006. Time Warner Cable, a unit of Time Warner Inc., and the AT&T Corporation have both announced major initiatives to roll out Internet-based phone service. The regional Bell company Qwest Communications International Inc. plans to offer Internet telephone service in its 14-state Rocky Mountain region as an alternative to conventional phone service. And every other major telecommunications provider has plans to introduce Internet-based service to take advantage of the technology's lower costs and the lack of regulation.

The F.C.C. has embarked on a series of public hearings around the country on whether and how to regulate Internet telephony. The agency's chairman, Mr. Powell, has said that his instinct is to subject telephone calls made using Internet technology to only minimal regulation in order to avoid costs and bureaucracy that he says would slow innovation and competition.

The public policy questions go to the heart of a social compact born in the 1930's. Then, the government granted regulated monopolies in individual markets to AT&T and other, smaller companies. In exchange, policy makers exacted a price: the telephone monopolies had to meet service quality standards and collect taxes and surcharges to support affordable, universal access even in rural or remote areas where free-market economics would not have made it cost effective to string telephone wires.

Although AT&T's Bell System was split up in 1984, the existing four major telephone companies descending from it -Verizon Communications, the BellSouth Corporation, Qwest and SBC Communications Inc. - still face substantial regulation from the federal and state governments. Now, though, with the advent of Internet-based telephone service, as well as competition from wireless providers, there is growing momentum to rewrite 70 years of rules.

"The economic regulation was quid pro quo for giving it a monopoly," said Mr. Davidson of the rules governing the Bell companies. Now, he said, "there is no monopoly."

Mr. Davidson said he thought that competition from cable and wireless companies provided consumers an array of new choices. But among the various state and federal regulators who will weigh in on the Internet-phone issue, there are many nuanced notions about how to proceed.

Some want to see state regulation eliminated; others want to see regulation streamlined but kept intact. Many want to retain guarantees of 911 service and universal service for low-income and rural residents, but they differ considerably on how to achieve those goals. Even within the National Association of Utility Regulators, an influential lobbying group of state regulators, some top officials have greatly divergent views about how to regulate telecommunications in the 21st century.

Not all industry executives agree, either, although most companies favor a significant rollback of regulations. One of the most unabashed supporters of Internet-based telephone service is Richard C. Notebaert, the chief executive of Qwest. Mr. Notebaert said Qwest, besides introducing Internet-based calling across its region, might even offer it nationwide.

Mr. Notebaert said that with Internet telephone service, he could save his customers 25 percent to 30 percent on their bills because they would not be required to pay the taxes and surcharges assessed to conventional phone service to support such things as phone service for low-income and rural residents. He said Internet-based service would enable his company to save "hundreds of millions" of dollars a year in costs associated with following regulatory requirements like tracking and reporting Qwest's customer service performance by various measures.

Mr. Notebaert acknowledged that moving to Internet telephone service would mean tradeoffs. "You're going to have to give things up to get 25 to 30 percent savings," Mr. Notebaert said. As to regulation, including universal service, he said, "I do not think it should be retained at all."

Some of the lower costs of Internet telephone service are a result of the underlying architecture. In the conventional telephone network, voice calls travel over a line that stretches from the home to a piece of phone company equipment called a circuit switch. The switch, and many others like it along the way, routes the call to its destination over local or long-distance networks. The switches can be expensive, as much as $10 million each, said John Hodulik, a telecommunications analyst with UBS Securities.

And adding to the costs is the fact that with conventional telephone service the line that carries the voice signal to and from homes is dedicated exclusively to one call at a time. With Internet-based calls, the information is broken down into small packets, so that the lines that carry the voice conversations can simultaneously transport many other packets of Internet traffic, like e-mail messages and World Wide Web pages. And Internet calls do not require lots of expensive circuit switches, because each packet of data carries an address that helps it find its own way across the network.

Were telephone companies to build a network from scratch today, they likely would do so using the less expensive Internet architecture that has enabled start-up companies like Vonage to enter the market.

Vonage has invested a mere $12 million in technology, the company's chief executive, Jeffrey A. Citron, said. That, he said, is a far cry from the $75 million to $100 million that some companies must spend to begin offering conventional telephone service. And Vonage spends only about $200 to set up each new customer, while a service provider selling conventional phone service might need to spend as much as $600 a customer, Mr. Citron said.

But some critics say a big reason Vonage and other Internet-based phone providers can cut costs is because they do not have to adhere to the same rules and regulations as the conventional telephone companies on whose local and national networks the Internet providers depend. Even an Internet telephony fan like Jeff Pulver, who was formerly on the Vonage board, acknowledged that a substantial amount of cost savings comes from avoiding the taxes, surcharges and access fees used to support the traditional phone network.

"Vonage benefits by not having to comply with those rules," he said. Mr. Pulver acknowledges that the Internet upstarts are practicing regulatory "arbitrage.'' But in his view the public policy response should be to deregulate all phone companies.

The fact that Vonage is not regulated and did not pay to build the national network may obscure the real cost of providing Internet-based phone service. Likewise, the cost to customers is not as low as it may seem. While consumers may pay less each month for Internet telephone service than for regular phone service, they cannot obtain the service unless they first have high-speed Internet access - on which they are likely to spend $40 to $70 a month. So the ability to use Internet phone service may actually require a total monthly outlay of $100 or more.

Those are table stakes far higher than the bare-bones "lifeline" conventional telephone service subsidized by the regulated industry's universal service fund, which can make basic dial tone and 911 service available to the poor or elderly for less than $10 a month in some states.

That is why policy makers like Ms. Lynch of the California resist the idea that Internet telephone service will lead to a telecommunications market so competitive that government regulation becomes unnecessary. She said that if conventional telephone companies like Qwest were allowed to avoid regulation by moving their business to Internet-based service, it would drain money from the universal service funds that have enabled low-income residents, as well as schools and libraries, to afford basic phone service.

"The pot of money used to make sure people can communicate will shrink," Ms. Lynch said. "It's a death spiral."

She also questions the premise that a competitive marketplace will satisfy consumer demands for reliable, affordable telecommunications. There are six major mobile phone companies, Ms. Lynch said, and despite vibrant competition, wireless service is still highly unreliable.

"Economic theory is not today's reality," Ms. Lynch said. "My job is not to hypothesize about Nirvana. My job is to deal with the realities today."

Mr. Davidson, in Florida, says he agrees that universal service is an important goal. But, he says he thinks the Internet phone technology should be allowed to mature before it is subjected to taxes and surcharges.

He also says he thinks that Internet-based telephone service providers should eventually be required to provide 911 service. But there, too, he would rather not force the issue just yet - in part because 911 service is difficult for Internet-based telephone services to accomplish.

Compared with traditional telephone calls, it is complicated to determine the precise location from which an Internet-based call has been placed, meaning that 911 operators would need to ask the caller to provide that information - even as the house is burning or the child is choking. Mr. Davidson said companies should have to disclose that shortcoming.

"The industry has a very clear obligation," Mr. Davidson said, "to let folks know that this isn't your father's 911."

But when asked when the industry would be mature enough to make 911 service mandatory, he showed his laissez-faire side. "I don't know,'' he said. "We should allow companies some time to get there."

This story also appeared in:
  • Lakeland Ledger, 1/5/04
  • International Herald Tribune, 1/5/04

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