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Compartmentalizing the Internet
By Scott Bradner
In early November the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that voice over Internet services generally cross state borders and, even in the cases where they do not, it is often impossible to tell if they do or do not. Gee, what a revelation! Of course this has been clear for quite a while to anyone who actually thought about for more than a few nanoseconds but the FCC ruling was required to keep state regulators from ignoring this reality in their quest to 'protect the public' and, in a total coincidence I assume, raise state revenue. Even though I think it's correct in exempting VoIP from state regulation, the FCC's opinion might come back to haunt them in the future.
On November 9th the FCC adopted a Memorandum Opinion and Order on Vonage's petition for a declaratory ruling requesting that the FCC preempt an order from the Minnesota utility commission order imposing traditional telephone service regulations on VoIP services.
(http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-04-267A1.pdf) I wrote about the Minnesota utility commission order shortly after it happened (Protecting the public from innovation
http://www.nwfusion.com/columnists/2003/0825bradner.html) and mused about the usefulness of regulators in light of such orders (What are regulators good for?
http://www.nwfusion.com/columnists/2003/1027bradner.html) so I will not repeat those points now.
The FCC's new order noted that state regulation, both in the telecommunications space and in general for commerce, was only valid for services that were confined within a state. It's clear that VoIP services, like those offered by Vonage, cannot generally be seen as being limited to in-state and the FCC order detailed a number of reasons that it was not feasible for such a service provider to know if a particular call both originated and terminated in a single state. The reasons included the fact that Vonage users can transport their equipment anywhere and still use it to place or receive calls and that Vonage offers customers the ability to use what appear to be local phone numbers from, lets say New York City, anyplace they want to, such as Minneapolis or a Minneapolis number in Rome Italy.
The FCC did recognize that the Minnesota order did deal with a number of important issues that needed to be resolved and said that the FCC would be addressing some of these in the future in its forthcoming overall IP-enabled services rules. (http://www.fcc.gov/ipwg/) One of those issues is Enhanced 911 (E911), which is used to summon emergency help. The IETF is investigating aspects of the E911 over the Internet problem and some particular recommendations and standards may be developed by the IETF in the next year or two. (See the Emergency Context Resolution with Internet Technologies (ecrit) BOF
http://www.ietf.org/ietf/04nov/ecrit.txt, the Geographic Location/Privacy (geopriv) working group - http://www.ietf.org/html.charters/geopriv-charter.html and work in the sip and sipping working groups http://www.ietf.org/html.charters/sip-charter.html and http://www.ietf.org/html.charters/sipping-charter.html)
The FCC may come to rue the day that it made many of the arguments in this order because the same arguments can very easily be made to say that VoIP (and most Internet) regulation should not be a national issue. Just like calling a help desk for too many American companies rings a phone halfway around the world in India there is no way to be sure that the VoIP phone that rings when you call a number in the 212 area code is in the U.S.
disclaimer: Since it's hard to outsource teaching in a residential university I do not think Harvard has a direct opinion on the trend but I did not ask and the above observations are my own.