Google Voice wins under Net Neutrality but could face its own scrutiny

As one hand of the FCC opens the pipes, the other could demand more regulation.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced Monday that the FCC would be moving ahead to implement net neutrality rules. Should these come to pass, Google Voice could wind up a big winner. On the other hand, pundits speculate that Google Voice itself could be facing even more FCC scrutiny.

Net neutrality forbids owners of the nation's broadband pipes, the carriers, to limit or charge a premium for services that cross those pipes from so-called competitors. This includes VoIP, such as Google Voice or Skype, but also video streaming and legal file sharing. President Obama has been a long-time proponent of net neutrality so no one was surprised to hear the issue being championed by the FCC. However, Genachowski shocked the industry by suggesting for the first time that Net Neutrality rules also be extended to wireless carriers. The wireless carriers are, as expected, not pleased, reports Reuters.

Google officials, on the other hand, were tickled. Vint Cerf downright glowed in a post to the Google Public Policy blog yesterday. He wrote:

"The Internet was designed to maximize user choice and competition, and we've all benefited immensely as a result. Today the FCC took an important step in protecting that environment and ensuring that the Internet remains a platform for innovation, economic growth, and free expression."

Let's note, too, that Google in the past has offered to shoulder some of the burden it places on carriers networks. Google took issue with a Wall Street Journal article that said the company was secretly opposed to Net Neutrality (Google was steering away from Network Neutrality, published in December.) The article contended that Google had proposed agreements with carriers that would give its services priority on their pipes. Google responded by saying poppycock ... it had proposed to service providers the idea of co-locating edge caching services, similar to what services like Akamai do for hire, so that its growing content could be served faster while reducing burden on the network. A few months later, it declared that the Internet was too slow and it was cooking up a remedy in its labs.

Net neutrality or not, things are likely to stay ugly between warring factions. As most Google watchers know by now, Google, Apple and AT&T have recently been embroiled in an FCC investigation over why Apple pulled Google Voice-related applications from its Apps Store. Some fingers originally pointed to AT&T, a company that certainly can't be happy about options like Google Voice. (Apple later assumed responsibility.) Net Neutrality would not have any impact on what apps Apple blocks from its store. It strikes me as funny that Huffington Post blogger Dan Frommer had to point that out for everyone.

But the ugliness does indicate that Google Voice could be heading for more scrutiny from the FCC at the insistence of wireless carriers (such as AT&T), the Wall Street Journal points out. Google itself acknowledges that the future of regulation for Voice is unclear. Google is still too young to let a thing like regulatory uncertainty stop it. (We need only look at how it has been rolling out features at a dizzying pace for its controversial, under-investigation-on-two-continents service Google Books, for confirmation.)

In any case, it seems at least likely that the FCC will want to impose more obligations on Google Voice, and perhaps all VoIP carriers, as they grow in popularity. It has already required them to connect emergency 911 calls and to meet traditional phone standards of universal service and consumer privacy.

But the irony is irresistible. Just when Voice is poised to get its protected ride on both broadband and wireless networks, so might it come under the very same regulatory thumb.

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