One of the best things about the National Broadband Plan is that it recognizes that to achieve its goals for broadband, the FCC must finally deal with certain issues that have been on its plate for years, like reform of universal service and intercarrier compensation.  AT&T has been trying, with others, to roll those rocks up the public policy hill for quite some time, only to watch them slip down the hill time and time again.

Reasonable people may quibble over the length of the recommended transition (which would be completed in 2020 under the Plan’s timetable), but the Plan does call for near term treatment for a couple of festering sores – traffic pumping and VoIP compensation. I hit traffic pumping in my last blog.  Today, let’s take a closer look at VoIP compensation, the subject of a meeting we had last Friday with the Chief of the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, Sharon Gillett.

VoIP compensation is basically the wild, wild West of telecom.  No one knows what the “rule” is since the FCC has kept its lips tightly sealed on the matter for 15 years.  Parties are free to argue for whatever rules they want, and even to argue for different rules depending on whether they’re buying termination or selling it (buy low, sell high based on regulatory mumbo jumbo is kind of the essence of arbitrage in this business).  Needless to say, this vacuum has been filled by one resource the telecom industry never lacks – “innovative” arbitrageurs.

And the questions just keep evolving.  One of the examples we used with the FCC last week, our old friend Google Voice, is illustrative of the situation.  As Google has described it, a completed Google Voice call typically bridges calls with two separate PSTN endpoints (that obtain service from their own service providers) via Google’s IP signaling platform.  In the middle of all this is a PSTN-gateway provider, like Bandwidth.com.  One thing the FCC may not have ascertained from its still pending investigation into Google Voice is whether Google’s gateway providers assess switched access charges for “helping” to bridge these calls.

This is a fascinating question (for the intercarrier comp wonk hidden within all of us).  If I call your Google Voice number and it looks like a “long distance” call to my carrier, my carrier would have no way of knowing that Google’s gateway provider may not terminate the call at all.  In this circumstance, does Google’s PSTN partner provide originating access, terminating access, or no switched access at all?  The answer to this question could determine whose hand gives who how much in potentially millions of dollars in access payments.  Here’s hoping the FCC moves quickly to provide some answers to these and other VoIP compensation conundrums.

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