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Networking

Pulver predicts Capitol Hill VoIP calls

Jeff Pulver put pressure on the FCC to make a decision that will likely shape the future of voice over Internet Protocol. Now, he's about to get his answer.

Serial entrepreneur Jeff Pulver has become the Internet phone industry's unofficial ambassador to Washington, D.C.

His pedigree as co-founder of two of the three most recognizable U.S. Internet phone services has won Pulver frequent meetings with Federal Communications Commission staffers and legislative aides now shaping the industry's regulatory future. Never one to miss an opportunity for face time, he once led a tutorial inside FCC offices on the standards Internet phone calls use.

Pulver has played a role in the creation of more than a dozen businesses. But voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service providers Vonage and Free World Dialup are the first to require visits with federal lawmakers.

But on Thursday, the FCC will give the first indications of how well Pulver has done.

It's not so farfetched to think that Pres. George Bush will have to state his position on VoIP.
That's when the regulatory body is expected to decide whether FCC rules apply to Internet phone providers. Pulver is asking whether the FCC should have any jurisdiction over VoIP providers, a question whose outcome many say may well be the tipping point for a regulatory overhaul.

Handicappers give Pulver a good chance of winning his argument. But his is only one of at least a half-dozen issues the FCC has to address. VoIP legislation of various degrees has also been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

Pulver, a former ham radio operator who turned to Web phoning partly out of boredom with the then current technology, is a co-founder of Vonage as well as Free World Dialup. He spent time recently with CNET News.com discussing the thinking about VoIP inside the Beltway and how it might affect the future of telephone regulation.

Q: What's one of the more surprising things you've learned about how Washington is thinking about VoIP?
A: I think that VoIP will play a role in the upcoming presidential elections. There's VoIP legislation in both the House and Senate. The FCC is going to be making a lot of important policy decisions in the next few months. It's on many persons' agendas here. It's not so farfetched to think that President George Bush will have to state his position on VoIP.

What's your overall sense as to what's really happening with lawmakers and regulators?
Everyone is waking up. February seems to be VoIP month in Washington.

What are some of the biggest changes you see on the horizon as a result of the regulatory shuffling that's going on?
I think that the whole concept of universal service is going to change. It worked well in the '80s and '90s, providing telephones for the underserved. But we need to move it to a policy that supports universal broadband so that everybody has high-speed connectivity.

FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy was at Catholic University, where she proposed only a few "social policies" VoIP providers should follow, like . What do you think of that?
I do think that over time, our "social policy" will evolve to address universal service to the point that this morphs into universal broadband so that everyone gets broadband, and then voice is an application delivered in that environment.

I've been working with the industry to get commitments from the IP communication service providers to support 911, so this will happen.
I'm already working closely with the NENA (National Emergency Number Association) folks who are responsible for 911, and I've been working with the industry to get commitments from the IP communication service providers to support 911, so this will happen.

Let's do some handicapping. AT&T has asked the FCC to be exempt from paying access charges. Do you think they don't have to pay carriers these federally mandated connection charges?
If it's granted, it'll be great for AT&T. If it's not granted, for AT&T and others that followed the lead, it's not so good.

Why does everybody think AT&T's petition is going to get shot down?
It's based on the reaction of the AT&T lobbyists in Washington. That, plus the noise that was made at the end of last year behind closed doors in separate meetings that AT&T and SBC Communications had with the FCC.

And what makes you so sure about yours being successful?
Again, I'm posturing. It's also my attempt to read between the lines.

What's your read?
I think that, eventually, it will get passed, whether it's in February, March or in the future. I think that I happen to be one of the good guys. What I hope is that the concept of end-to-end IP is embraced by all those who benefit from it. It would encourage investment and more innovative services on the edge.

Do you expect the FCC to begin making new VoIP rules, as they have indicated?
They may ultimately find VoIP to be its own classification, as far as telecom goes. There will likely be wireless, wirelines and separate rules for VoIP.

In the past few months of lobbying, haven't traditional phone companies and VoIP providers reached some middle ground on whether to regulate?
I call it the rise of the broadband parasites. There's this new recognition that anyone can offer services over infrastructure they don't own. We all came to the same conclusion. For the Baby Bells, they will be damned if they let some start-up take away subscriber access loans. The Bells want their cake and to eat it, too.

Just as the Bells have compromised their views, haven't VoIP providers? They were against any regulations in 2003, now they are embracing them.
There's always a fine line between where it snows, rains and ices.

What about on the executive branch?
They are pretty hot on VoIP. Never in my life did I think that VoIP could become part of a presidential platform for an election year.

What do you think of the California Senate, which has begun exploring whether state legislators can pass laws on VoIP providers? One example is whether VoIP providers should follow the state's own telephone laws.
We may have entered and started down a very slippery slope. Now, the issue is that a company that appears to be operating a service similar to other traditional operators may be held accountable for their business practices. In reality, this may be a good thing. The subtle part is whether or not such a business meets the definitions of what is and what is not a communications service.