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FCC looking into Google Voice and rural calls

After AT&T complained that Google Voice is allowed to skirt rules that require it to connect expensive calls to rural areas, agency is reportedly planning to probe the matter.

Should Google Voice have to follow the same rules as AT&T? Screenshot by Tom Krazit/CNET

The Federal Communications Commission is looking into how Google Voice treats calls to certain rural areas that landline phone companies are required to connect.

AT&T placed this complaint before the FCC, accusing Google of failing to live up to the Net neutrality rules it has long supported before the U.S. government. On Thursday, several members of Congress implored the FCC to look into the matter, and their concerns have been heard, according to a report from the Associated Press that Google has confirmed.

The dispute is over Google's practice of blocking calls to certain rural phone networks that are allowed to charge a disproportionately high rate for calls connected to those networks. Some rural carriers, in a practice known as traffic pumping about which AT&T has long complained, partner with companies that draw a high volume of network traffic, such as phone sex operators and conference-calling firms, charge a much higher connection rate, then split the revenue with them.

AT&T is required to connect such calls because it is considered a "common carrier" that is required to ensure open access to networks that were created with public money. "By openly flaunting the call-blocking prohibition that applies to its competitors, Google is acting in a manner inconsistent with the spirit, if not the letter, of the FCC's fourth principle contained in its Internet Policy Statement," Robert Quinn, AT&T's senior vice president focusing on federal regulation, said in a statement last month when it filed its original complaint with the FCC.

Google argues that it is not subject to the same laws because it's a software company and because Google Voice doesn't replace phone service; it still requires phone service to work properly. It addressed the inquiry in a blog post Friday.

"AT&T apparently now wants Web applications--from Skype to Google Voice--to be treated the same way as traditional phone services," wrote Richard Whitt, Google's Washington media and telecom counsel. "Their approach is what a former FCC chairman has called "regulatory capitalism," the practice of using regulation to block or slow down innovation. And despite AT&T's lobbying efforts, this issue has nothing to do with network neutrality or rural America. This is about outdated carrier compensation rules that are fundamentally broken and in need of repair by the FCC."

So now it appears that the FCC will attempt to referee the matter. Google's no stranger to federal authorities at the moment, with just about everything it does falling under the watchful eye of an administration that seems determined to examine dominant companies in the tech industry.