Broadband bill causes concern in VoIP community

Controversial telecommunications legislation that won the approval last week of a U.S. House of Representatives committee has raised a red flag among companies and organizations active in the development of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

The Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act of 2001, which supporters say will help accelerate the deployment of broadband Internet services throughout the country, contains an amendment that would place restrictions on VoIP, officials said at a news conference Wednesday organized by Jeff Pulver, chief executive officer of Pulver.com, a organization that promotes IP communication.

The broadband bill, which passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee on May 9 [See "UPDATE - Broadband bill passes committee," May 9.], would allow the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) to enter the market for high-speed data services across regional boundaries.

Its sponsors, Reps. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, a Republican from Louisiana, and John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, say it is expected to be combined with legislation to provide the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) greater enforcement authority to police federal telecommunication law, and then be voted on by the full House.

But Pulver and other VoIP advocates on Wednesday zeroed in on an amendment added to the legislation before it was voted out of an Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee that would prohibit the RBOCs from providing VoIP as part of those high-speed data services.

"Our concern with (the bill) is Section Six, which would prohibit the provision of voice services by the RBOCs over what otherwise is considered data connections, and our concern is that that is an unwise restriction on the deployment of voice over IP," Bruce Jacobs, a lawyer representing the Voice on the Net (VON) Coalition, said at the briefing.

Jacobs said people in the industry are concerned that the maneuver could be a "back-door" entry into the regulation of the Internet.

In addition, Pulver said the language could be damaging to the VoIP industry abroad because other countries use U.S. telecom regulation as a pattern when writing their own regulations. If the United States blocks the RBOCs from doing VoIP, it will have a "cascading effect" all over the world, and within a few years, other countries will feel justified in doing the same, he said.

Tom Evslin, chairman and chief executive officer of ITXC Corp., in Princeton, New Jersey, and a board member of the VON Coalition, agreed that language in the bill that mentions VoIP should be removed.

"What's worrisome about the amendment is, up to now in the U.S. there has been no regulation, very deliberately, of what's done on Internet," Evslin said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "Putting that language in the bill could be taken as a precedent that Internet telephony in general can be regulated."

Evslin said his concern about the amendment was not "huge" because the bill has not yet passed the House, and its prospects for passing the Senate do not appear to be good.

The language was added to the bill in an amendment proposed by Rep. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who opposes the Tauzin-Dingell bill.

Colin Crowell, a spokesman for Markey, stressed that the amendment prevents only the RBOCs from providing VoIP services, and has no effect on any other providers. In adding the VoIP language, Markey's concern was that because the Tauzin-Dingell bill prevents the Bell companies from collecting fees and billing for long-distance data services, it would provide an incentive for them to provide VoIP for free, Crowell said. If the competitive carriers could not afford to match the free services, the Bell companies might have an unfair advantage.

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