Google quickly responded to a Federal Communications Commission letter released Friday requesting further information about its policy on blocking calls to selected telephone exchanges. While Google admits to having a policy that restricts Google Voice calls to phone numbers in a small number of rural areas, Google counsel Richard Whitt said the reason behind the policy is simple.

Telecom providers not only charge exorbitant termination rates for these calls, but they "also partner with adult sex chat lines and 'free' conference calling centers to drive high volumes of traffic," Whitt said. "Google Voice is a free application and we want to keep it that way for all our users -- which we could not afford to do if we paid these ludicrously high charges."

Robust and Lawful Competition

Among other things, the FCC's letter asked Google to describe how Google Voice places restrictions on calls to particular telephone numbers. The commission also asked the search giant to explain the methods it employs to inform Google Voice users "about any restrictions in the numbers to which calls can be placed," wrote Sharon Gillet, chief of the FCC Wireline Competition Bureau.

Late last month, AT&T complained in a letter to the FCC that allowing Google to restrict selected Google Voice calls gives it an unfair advantage over traditional telecom providers. Those providers are banned from implementing call blocking and other self-help actions under a policy introduced by the bureau in June 2007.

"Google casually dismisses the bureau's order, claiming that Google Voice 'isn't a traditional phone service and shouldn't be regulated like other common carriers,'" AT&T Senior Vice President Robert Quinn told the FCC. "But in reality, Google Voice appears to be nothing more than a creatively packaged assortment of services that are already quite familiar to the commission."

Google Voice incorporates a calling platform that offers unified communications capabilities as well as an audio-bridging telecommunications service that provides the IP-in-the-middle connection for calls between traditional landlines and/or wireless telephones, Quinn said. "As such, Google Voice would appear to be subject to the same call-blocking prohibition applicable to providers of other telecommunications services," he wrote.

Hypocritical Complaints

Twenty members of Congress with rural constituencies -- including Reps. Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) and Charlie Melancon (D-Louisiana) -- have sent their own letter to the FCC demanding an investigation into Google Voice.

"A bipartisan group of my colleagues, and I, are concerned when a service provider unfairly blocks calls to certain exchanges -- regardless of the technology used to initiate the call, whether it would be web-based applications or traditional phone services," Buyer said. "I want to be assured there is robust and lawful market competition."

However, Whitt said the issue has nothing to do with network neutrality or rural America. "This is about outdated carrier compensation rules that are fundamentally broken and in need of repair by the FCC," Whitt said.

Google's free Web application is intended to supplement and enhance existing phone lines, not replace them, Whitt added.

"The goal of Google Voice is to provide a useful, unified communications tool for, among others, soldiers and the homeless," Whitt said. "Some have observed that Google Voice is 'something a real phone company should have offered years ago.'"