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VoIP Recognition

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Voip Recognition

January 26, 2004

By Donny Jackson

With less than 0.1% of all residential wireline customers in the U.S. using voice-over-IP service right now, it's still a small world after all for VoIP. But pundits already are predicting the technology will revolutionize telecom and forever change the industry's regulatory framework - and underlying financial regimes - beginning this year.

"2004 is going to be a big year for VoIP," said John Rego, chief financial officer for Voip poster child Vonage, which provides service to 92,000 of the 132,000 residential customers in the U.S. After a turbulent 2003 in which several states took myriad approaches to regulate - or not regulate - VoIP, the FCC is expected to take the lead this year in clarifying the technology, which currently is treated as an information service that is not subject to telecommunications regulations.

The commission is expected to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking on Voip and begin to address a backlog of requests to clarify regulations on the technology during the first half of this year, with the first actions possibly coming as early as February see table on page 32 .

Chairman Michael Powell has been outspoken in his assessment that Voip should be regulated with "the lightest hand" possible to allow businesses employing the nascent technology to grow without the impediment of costs inherent with regulatory compliance.

"The burden should be placed squarely on the government to demonstrate why regulation is needed, rather than on innovators to explain why it is not," Powell told the National Press Club on Jan. 14.

Of course, as Voip companies claim market share, taking a largely deregulatory stance on Voip creates a domino effect of social policy questions on issues such as 911 and universal service, financial issues regarding taxation and intercarrier compensation, and - ultimately - the fairness of continuing to regulate traditional telecom carriers.

"VoIP is one big gray area," said Scott Cleland, CEO of The Precursor Group.

For all the potential chaos Voip may create in the telecom arena, participants are remarkably agreeable on the basic tenets of regulatory policy for the technology.

Competitors, cable providers and incumbent carriers all believe Voip should remain largely unregulated, with the possible exception of social policy initiatives such as 911, CALEA and universal service.

However, the motivations for the stances vary. Competitors see Voip as a way to provide telephony without enduring the aggravation and costs related to working with incumbent carriers to secure unbundled network elements. Cable companies don't want to leave their largely deregulated broadband environment. And some incumbent carriers privately believe successful VoIP-led competition eventually could allow them to escape regulations that artificially increase the price of their services to consumers.

"If a customer is spending $60 on traditional telephony, about $20 of that is taxes," said Steve Davis, senior vice president for policy at Qwest Communications, which last month became the first major telecom carrier to offer Voip service to residential customers. "You can offer Voip for much less and still realize the same profit."

For years, relatively poor voice quality hindered VoIP, but that's no longer an issue. Today, the technology's biggest problem seems to be the ability to participate in public safety initiatives such as CALEA and 911. Current Voip offerings in these areas do not readily fit in the traditional telephony-based systems, but Rego said he doesn't believe it will be long before solutions exist.

CALEA requirements, which allow federal law enforcement agencies to access phone records and conversations, can largely be done on the public network side, which is where most Voip calls are terminated, Rego said. And it's just a matter of time before a pure Voip system is in place.

"If we can send a packet anywhere in the world, why can't we send it to the FBI?" Rego said.

Meanwhile, the inherent nature of IP that makes location and distance irrelevant to users creates challenges when trying to develop 911 solutions over VoIP. Vonage has a 911 service, but it requires the users to program their locations into the phone, Rego said.

One problem with Vonage's 911 system is that it does not have access to the dedicated 911 system; instead of being routed to a 911 dispatcher at the public safety access point, the "speed-dialed" calls go the PSAP's administrative line, Rego said. Vonage is working with the National Emergency Number Association to rectify the situation and plans to provide enhanced 911 services within two years.

These developments have all occurred without a regulatory mandate, Rego noted. Vonage developed 911 service because it realized that customers would not replace their traditional wireline phones without it. And some day, 911 will be much more effective because of IP, he said.

"Imagine the enhanced 911 that you could have with IP," Rego said. "For instance, when you call 911, the dispatcher could automatically call up a URL on a screen that allows him to pull up your medical records, which could be communicated to the paramedics. You could never do that in the current system."

Such enhancements distinguish Voip from traditional circuit-switched telephony, according to Powell. Voip is a "voice application that runs over the Internet," which allows the calls to be deregulated, while regulated circuit-based telephony only permits a call to be made from one point to another.

This distinction is potentially important because more than $16 billion dollars in access charges paid by interexchange carriers to local incumbents could be in the balance. In 2002, noting that IP calls were not regulated, AT&T sought a declaratory ruling from the FCC to relieve it from having to pay access charges to ILECs for public network-to-public network calls that the long-distance company converted to IP on its network.

However, critics claim AT&T's IP conversion offers the customer no potential for enhanced features that are not available to traditional circuit-switched calls. Thus, if Powell persuades two other commissioners to apply his enhancement test for VoIP, the FCC likely will deny AT&T's request, much to the delight of RBOCs.

"AT&T's access charge-avoidance efforts at the FCC consist of little more than stenciling the word 'Internet' onto a magic wand and waving that wand over a normal phone call to somehow entitle that call to a free ride on the local phone network," said Herschel Abbott, BellSouth's vice president for government affairs, in a prepared statement. "AT&T's argument is preposterous."

AT&T disagrees. BellSouth's interpretation of Powell's speech goes "out of its way to mischaracterize AT&T's Voip technology," said AT&T spokeswoman Claudia Jones, who noted that Powell never mentioned AT&T's petition in his speech. "Clearly, Chairman Powell's speech was designed to create an environment that encourages investment in IP technology, and to move voice telephony from traditional circuit-based TDM networks," Jones said. "[AT&T's IP technology] is truly new investment that should not be thrown into the Bells' old inflated access rules bucket."

On the other end of the spectrum, most observers expect the FCC to clarify that VoIP-to-VoIP calls are largely shielded from regulation, like the rest of the Internet. However, calls from Voip phones to public network lines likely will spur considerable debate.

Voip companies like Vonage are not carriers, so they sign wholesale agreements with IXCs to carry their traffic to the destination ILEC, where the conversion is made from the IP network to the public network to terminate the call.

At issue is how the ILEC should be compensated. If the traffic is deemed to be long-distance, the incumbent receives intercarrier access charges. If the traffic is considered local, the ILEC receives reciprocal compensation, which typically is at least 80% less than the amount it would receive via access charges.

Last month, Level 3, which carries traffic for Vonage, filed a petition for forbearance with the FCC, asking the commission to clarify that it should have to pay only reciprocal compensation to incumbents because Voip calls delivered to the ILEC's local switch are like any other local call. Not surprisingly, ILECs want to be paid at the higher access charge rate.

Vonage's Rego said his company doesn't know whether its carriers pay access charges or reciprocal compensation, but he would prefer they pay reciprocal compensation "if that turns out to be a better deal for us." However, one of Vonage's key arguments against being regulated by states is that IP traffic, which can be routed all over the world before reaching its destination, is inherently interstate in nature - a position that may seem contrary to the notion that its calls are eligible for local reciprocal compensation.

Meanwhile, Level 3 CEO James Crowe said Voip calls should not be subject to the "implicit subsidies" to ILECs that cause access charges to be so much higher than actual costs. With this in mind, Crowe has called for the FCC to conduct its much-anticipated review of intercarrier compensation in conjunction with any Voip rulemaking.

Indeed, many have argued for years that the intercarrier compensation regime needs to be revamped, and VoIP's emergence has reinforced that notion. But such a broad review could result in the FCC opening a regulatory can of worms - a circumstance that could prove to be particularly dicey for the commission in the latter half of the year if it becomes apparent that President George Bush will not be re-elected, which would create a Democrat-dominated commission.

Similarly, the universal service fund has been the subject of increased scrutiny and concern. Voip providers do not pay to the fund directly - although their interexchange carriers do on calls to the public network, albeit at lower wholesale rates - which causes some to worry that the fund could be jeopardized if Voip becomes prevalent.

But Powell has said the low rates offered for unlimited local and long-distance calls offered by Voip providers has caused him to rethink the need for a universal service fund, which is designed to assure affordable access to the phone network throughout the U.S.

"[VoIP offerings are] a better value proposition than the universal fund has created in a hundred years," Powell said in December before an audience at the University of California-San Diego. "If every American had access to Voip for $30 per month, why would we need a universal service fund?"

Of course, Voip is only available to customers with broadband connections, which has caused some to broach the idea that the universal service goals should be to provide affordable broadband connectivity - not just a copper line - to everyone. That's not likely, especially in the near term, but Rego said he believes VoIP's emergence will play a key role in driving broadband adoption.

"VoIP is going to be a tipping point for people to buy broadband," he said. "It will be ironic if, after all these years, voice becomes the killer app for broadband."

While these issues are compelling, the most significant potential long-term fallout from a significant Voip emergence could be eventual deregulation of the RBOCs. With competition from wireless carriers, MSOs, CLECs and Voip providers - none of which are heavily regulated - it may be increasingly difficult for government entities to justify regulating incumbent carriers.

"VoIP is one more reason why regulation of the traditional phone network is no longer applicable," Qwest's Davis said.

Such a decision could have sweeping effects well beyond the telecom industry. For instance, state government budgets have long counted on dominant carriers paying taxes, and local entities may have trouble defending continued assessment of lucrative franchise fees.

But it won't be happening any time soon, Cleland said, noting that only 20% of the population has broadband today.

"That's the next yellow brick road that [RBOCs] have come up with, but you can't define your way out of the Telecom Act," Cleland said. "They'll still have to unbundle network elements."

One thing that seems increasing clear is that, even if Voip providers become the dominant calling providers sometime in the future, they likely will never face the kind of regulatory scrutiny ILECs currently face. Because of IP's inherent flexibility, Voip carriers serving the U.S. are not bound to operate within the country.

"If it really got to a point where it was heavily regulated, there's no reason we couldn't move to the Cayman Islands," Rego said. "That's what happened to the Internet gambling industry."

It's a powerful leverage point. Members of Congress may not care about the legal distinctions between telecom services and telecommunications services, but they do care about jobs, especially in emerging industries like VoIP, and do not want to see them lost overseas.

That said, Vonage would rather remain in the U.S.

"We're not opposed to regulation," Rego said. "We're opposed to Voip being squeezed into traditional, fixed wireline telephony regulations."

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HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See for details.

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