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Networking

FCC lets SBC dial direct to get Net phone numbers

Operator gets an easier, cheaper route to the 10-digit numbers it needs.

The nation's top utility regulator has made it easier and cheaper for SBC Communications and other Internet phone service providers to get 10-digit phone numbers--another federal boost for the mushrooming broadband phone industry.

In essence, the Federal Communications Commission gave SBC permission to get telephone numbers directly from their official source--a privately run, quasi-government agency known as the North American Numbering Plan Administration. It's a much cheaper alternative.

Before the FCC's action, only those Net phone providers certified by states could approach the agency directly. The SBC division selling Net phone services argued that it wasn't fair; the calls actually use the Internet and are therefore off-limits to any regulation. Also, requiring certification multiplies the already onerous amount of expensive state and federal telephone regulation.

"The waiver is in the public interest," FCC commissioners wrote in a decision released this week. "It will help expedite the implementation of (Internet-enabled) services."

Other Internet phone providers are sure to win such an exemption, the FCC notes in its 27-page order. The rules exemption for SBC is in effect for another few months, as commissioners finish drafting rules for Net phone providers.

With its decision, the FCC continues to demonstrate a hands-off approach toward voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)--software that lets a broadband connection double as a phone line.

The technology is cheaper for consumers because it avoids the heavily taxed and regulated traditional local phone networks built and controlled by the Baby Bells--the four regional operating companies, including SBC, that remain in the wake of the breakup of AT&T.

While other cable companies and a host of upstarts such as Vonage Holdings have been selling VoIP since 2002, cable operators are considered the most daunting for the Bells because of their size, financial backing and political muscle.

From a historical perspective, the FCC notes that its decision is similar in importance to when cell phone operators first approached local phone operators to strike interconnection agreements that would let their customers call each other. Craig McCaw and the other cell phone pioneers were also seeking a "more efficient" and less expensive means.

An SBC spokesman on Wednesday thanked the FCC for continuing to keep Internet services "largely free of onerous regulations." He adds that it won't affect the timing of a commercial Internet phone service that SBC intends to introduce in the near future.

Critics are already stirring, though not yet commenting, as they digest the ruling. A telephone industry trade group, the Association of Local Telecommunications Services, has in the past claimed that SBC has a "strategy to impose access charges unlawfully."

Telephone services provider WilTel Communications is asking the FCC's enforcement bureau to investigate whether SBC is violating any longstanding communications laws.