The Future is Unclear: VoIP & the FCCBy:Michael Ventimiglia (G+)|February 01, 2013 at 2:55pm
As the VoIP industry has continued to grow, the questions of regulation and intervention have become increasingly prevalent. While providers are generally in discordance with regulatory agencies, policies, and practices, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has begun to take an increased interest in the VoIP industry. Subsequently, this difference in opinion has bred a division of thought regarding whether or not regulatory actions should be put into place for the VoIP industry at large. Though this argument may seem to have two sides, pro and anti, disjoint has been rampant within both camps. There are definitely points to be made on both sides, but what involved parties need to consider what regulation would mean for a flourishing industry? What effect would this have on consumers? While these questions undoubtedly rage across the telecommunications industry, it’s clear that everyone has their eyes on the VoIP industry.
One of the key arguments against VoIP regulation lies in the criteria and jurisdiction of the FCC. Many companies that currently offer VoIP service may not fit the necessary requirements needed to be considered a telecommunications carrier. Therefore, if VoIP providers are not seen as carriers, the FCC should not have the authority to regulate them as such. Aside from the argument of the validity of regulation, many providers have a number of different ideas regarding the role the FCC should play. For example, providers such as AT&T and organizations such as The National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA) have issued petitions for their ideas regarding regulation. In short, AT&T calls on limited regulation and the outdating of older contingencies, while the NTCA petition asks that regulatory bodies “examine means of promoting and sustaining the ongoing evolution of public switched telephone network to an IP-based infrastructure through targeted regulatory relief and the establishment of tailored near-term economic incentives.” Both petitions call for different means of execution.
While providers seem to be more interested in a continued lack of regulatory authority, other organizations have questioned the effects this type of change would have. For example, the NTCA’s petition (quoted above) calls for the FCC to reflect on factors that could inhibit growth in the long run. For the sake of perspective, the petition asks the FCC to examine the current industry’s infrastructure, revealing how it would have to change to accommodate growth moving forward. Despite the number of opinions that call for limited to no regulation, the FCC’s increased interest in VoIP service is ultimately due to freedoms the service consequently allots providers. As freedoms increase in providers switching to IP, there are fewer regulations in tow. Additionally, as the VoIP industry grows to substantiate more of the telecommunications industry, many feel that it should thusly be regulated the same as traditional PSTN services.
Though there are a number of factors to account for, FCC regulations, while helpful, would have an enormous effect on the growth rate of VoIP. Many users switch over to VoIP service for accessibility, ease of use, cost efficiency, expanded features, and the preference of being unbound by service contracts. With regulatory policies put in place, this could greatly affect the availability of these features. Subsequently, if these features are not accounted for in VoIP service, users will not be as likely to switch from their service, and the industry’s growth would stunt. Aside from features, VoIP is a young service that is ultimately hinged on simplicity. If the FCC mandated regulatory policies, the image of simplicity would be tarnished. As stated above, some of these policies (in regards to continued growth) will be necessary in the future; however, all parties involved must find a way to balance consumer protection and freedom of service providers. If these two entities cannot find a shared balance, the industry will cease to expand, and even possibly wither.
While the FCC has been trying to catch up to all the advances in service, they have already begun to expand some of their rules to VoIP providers. As the debate for regulation carries on, it is clear that the FCC will play a role in the VoIP industry in the future. If this is to be the case, the agency must be careful in the treading fairness for both consumers and providers. Both extremes must be moderated, as a complete lack of regulation could lead to exuberant prices and terms, and over regulation could dismantle the industry. The relationship between VoIP and the FCC remains unclear as it is currently hinged on moderation. Nevertheless, as the industry flourishes, the regulatory agency may be eager to implement rigid policies, though they should certainly be aware of the long term and irreversible damage haphazard policies could inevitably inflict to the maturing industry.