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The birth of an activist FCC?


The FCC looks like it is starting to get involved in the business of telecom in new ways


'Net Insider By Scott Bradner , Network World , 08/03/2009


The latest news out of the normally sluggish FCC is quite a change of pace. Just three days after The New York Times ran a story on Apple refusing to carry Google Voice in the iTunes App Store for the iPhone the FCC started asking questions about it. Yes, the FCC was looking to dance without even waiting to be asked. I'm a bit worried for the toes of its reluctant dancing partners.


According to press reports, the Google Voice rejection had happened a few weeks earlier but the news broke on July 28. On July 31 the FCC sent letters to Apple, Google and AT&T asking some pointed questions about what happened. As far as I
can tell no one formally asked the FCC to get involved this time. (The FCC had been asked by Skype back in February 2007 to take a look at the same sort of thing.)


But that request seemed to fade away after the FCC asked for comments on Skype's request, which the FCC had assigned the identifier "RM-11361." There were press reports at the time that the FCC had rejected the request, but that might not be the end of the story.


The FCC asked Apple why the Google Voice application had been rejected and if Apple had acted alone. It also asked whether AT&T had anything to do with the rejection, what power AT&T has over which applications are accepted, what other applications have been rejected and why.


Apple may have its work cut out for itself to explain how the evaluation and approval process runs since, by all reports, Apple has raised capriciousness to an art form in the way it runs the App Store.


The FCC asked AT&T some of the same questions about its power over what is accepted in the App Store, asked about any other VoIP applications running on other AT&T phones, and inquired about any limitations AT&T has stuck in user agreements.


Finally, the FCC asked Google for a description of Google Voice, what Apple had told Google about why Apple had said no to the application, what other applications Google had in the Apple App Store and what process Google uses for applications in its own App Store for Android phones.


In each case the FCC also asked some other questions, but the above lists cover the high points. The FCC asked for answers by Aug. 21, and told the companies that they could ask for parts of their responses to be kept confidential as long as the requests met federal requirements.


Meanwhile, the FCC has opened an exploration about handset exclusivity. This effort was assigned the identifier "RM-11497."


The reason I bring up the identifiers is because the FCC cited both of these efforts in the opening paragraph of its letters about Google Voice. 


The FCC said, "In light of pending FCC proceedings regarding wireless open access (RM-11361) and handset exclusivity (RM-11497), we are interested in a more complete understanding of the situation."


Sort of looks like the Skype request is not quite as dead as it looked. I will say that I'm of a rather mixed mind on this new FCC activity. As a general rule government regulations do not make the world go smoother.


But sometimes they are needed -- for example, rules against lead paint on kids' toys. I can see where rules from the FCC that limited the reasons that an Apple or AT&T could block applications and usages of networks would be a good thing but rules limiting what you and I can do with that connectivity would not be.


Disclaimer: Part of education in a place like Harvard is to let students know that there are rules. But I've not seen a university opinion on the FCC's rulemaking prowess, so the above worry is mine alone.


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