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Former FCC chairman blasts agency's 'suspicious' VoIP actions

Former FCC chairman Reed Hundt on Tuesday blasted his former agency and current chairman Michael Powell at the Wireless Internet Summit, claiming that the FCC has already decided to regulate VoIP, stifling future technological innovation.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Former Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt took his former agency to task today for what he feels will be its unnecessarily heavy-handed regulatory stance toward voice over Internet Protocol.

Speaking at the Wireless Internet Summit, Hundt said that it is likely that the FCC will choose to regulate VoIP providers, which would stifle innovation, boost costs and protect traditional phone companies from the challenge that low-cost or free Internet calling service could bring.

Citing a letter from current FCC chairman Michael Powell to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that is posted on the FCC Web site, Hundt said it was apparent that the FCC had already decided to regulate VoIP.

Earlier this week, the FCC announced that it would hold a to investigate the possibility of establishing VoIP regulations.

The agency has waived the usual public comment period, which is often the step before making such a ruling, Hundt said. Though the is scheduled for Dec. 1, Powell wrote that the agency planned to issue a Notice of Public Rule Making (NPRM) "shortly after the ," in an effort to gather comments from the public.

Hundt said that language indicates that the agency had already made up its mind about what rules it plans to issue, and that the December would be little more than a formality.

"I ran this agency," Hundt said. "I know you should be suspicious."

Hundt pointed out three issues raised in chairman Powell's letter, which he said pointed to erroneous arguments for the regulations of VoIP.

The was concern about emergency services and Enhanced 911 (E911), FCC rules seeking to improve the effectiveness and reliability of wireless 911 service. While VoIP systems have had some problems adhering to E911 regulations, Hundt thought that it was odd that this was an issue of high concern to the FCC, since the wireless industry successfully lobbied to delay the implementation of most E911 requirements.

"If this is not an important issue for cell phones, why is it at the top of the list for VoIP?" Hundt asked.

The letter also cited universal service as an issue necessitating VoIP regulation, an issue that Hundt quipped had never been a concern for the agency when it was regulating broadband services. Unregulated VoIP, according to the letter, could also pose homeland security concerns.

Hundt said that the vast success of narrow-band Internet in the U.S. was largely due to the FCC's decision, made during his tenure as chairman, not to regulate the technology or to allow phone companies to charge Internet service providers for use by the minute.

The large telecommunications companies are concerned about the growth of VoIP because it has the ability to allow users to make calls for free on the Internet, undermining their fundamental business model. Hundt, however, said that there were opportunities for those companies to expand broadband access and generate revenue that way.

Regulating VoIP now would suppress innovation before the technology really gets off the ground, Hundt said. And if the U.S. does not innovate, companies in other countries will, he said.

Hundt also said that local phone service rates should be deregulated and taken out of the hands of the states, allowing for increased competition and more opportunities for carriers.


Read our tech tip on VoIP regulations.

Check out a related headline: Next stop after VoIP decision: The FCC.

Read chairman Powell's letter (Microsoft Word document).

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