AT&T slams Google for 'systematically' blocking telephone calls

Posted by Aharon Etengoff

AT&T has accused Google of "systematically" blocking telephone calls to certain rural areas. The controversial strategy has allegedly permitted Google Voice to claim a "significant advantage" over providers offering competing services.

"By blocking these calls, Google is able to reduce its access expenses," AT&T's Robert W. Quinn wrote in an official letter to the FCC. "Other providers, including those with which Google Voice competes, are banned from call blocking because in June 2007, the Wireline Competition Bureau emphatically declared that all carriers are prohibited from pursuing 'self help actions such as call blocking.'"

According to Quinn, Google has "casually dismissed" the Bureau's order by claiming that its Voice application isn't a traditional phone service and shouldn't be regulated like other common carriers.

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"But in reality, 'Google Voice' appears to be nothing more than a creatively packaged assortment of services that are already quite familiar to the Commission," claimed Quinn. "Among other things, Google Voice includes a calling platform that offers unified communications capabilities and a domestic/international audio bridging telecommunications service that, with the assistance of a local exchange carrier known as Bandwidth.com, provides the IP-in-the-middle connection for calls between traditional landline and/or wireless telephones. As such, Google Voice would appear to be subject to the same call blocking prohibition applicable to providers of other telecommunications services."

In addition, Quinn noted that the service would still be subject to the Commission's Internet Policy Statement even if Google Voice was considered an Internet application.

"[The Commission's] fourth principle states that 'consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers,'" stated Quinn. "This fourth principle cannot fairly be read to embrace competition in which one provider unilaterally appropriates to itself regulatory advantages over its competitors. By openly flaunting the call blocking prohibition that applies to its competitors, Google is acting in a manner inconsistent with the fourth principle."

Quinn also insisted that Google was "flouting" the so-called "fifth principle of non-discrimination" for which Google has so "fervently" advocated.

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"According to Google, non-discrimination ensures that a provider 'cannot block fair access' to another provider. But that is exactly what Google is doing when it blocks calls that Google Voice customers make to telephone numbers associated with certain local exchange carriers," opined Quinn. "The Financial Times aptly recognized this fundamental flaw in Google's position: 'network neutrality is similar to common carriage because it enforces  non-discrimination. Google is arguing for others to be bound by network neutrality and, on the other hand arguing against itself being bound by common carriage,' which leaves Google with an 'intellectual contradiction' in its argument."

Quinn concluded his letter by urging the Commission to "level the playing field" and order Google to play by the same rules as its competitors.

"AT&T urges the Commission to end, once and for all, the patently unlawful 'traffic pumping' schemes that drive carriers to block calls in the first place. Regardless of how the Commission ultimately addresses traffic pumping, the Commission cannot, through inaction or otherwise, give Google a special privilege to play by its own rules while the rest of the industry, including those who compete with Google, must instead adhere to Commission regulations."