Google's Response To FCC Inquiry: We Now Restrict Calls To Fewer Than 100 Phone Numbers

Google has responded to the FCC’s inquiry regarding Google Voice (see document embedded below). There’s been and intense back-and-forth between AT&T, Google, and the FCC over Google Voice’s blocking of some rural telephone numbers. AT&T recently sent a letter to the FCC to undermine Google’s recent argument that it’s blocking exorbitantly expensive calls to some numbers in part because they are associated with sex lines. AT&T’s also thinks that the FCC should consider regulating the search giant on the web as well.

Google response says that its engineers have developed a “tailored solution” for restricting calls to specific numbers engaged in what some have called high-cost “traffic pumping” schemes, like adult chat and “free” conference call lines. Google didn’t want these schemes to exploit the “free nature” of Google voice and over the past few weeks have been trying to locate the source of the problem. Google now says that Google Voice now restricts calls to fewer than 100 specific phone numbers, which Google thinks are part of a traffic pumping scheme.

For those that haven’t been following the story so far: Google’s decision to block certain numbers stems from the way some rural local carriers have been exploiting current FCC rules. Some local carriers charge very high prices for AT&T, Google Voice, and other services to connect their calls. Few people would normally call these rural numbers, so these local carriers team up with conference calling centers and sex lines to further drive traffic. AT&T has previously tried to block these numbers but was barred from doing so, and is upset that Google Voice is getting away with it. AT&T has framed this as part of the Net Neutrality debate, though given their past stance on the issue it’s hard not to take their arguments with a grain of salt. AT&T complained pretty loudly, even enlisting member of congress to sniff around the issue, and called upon the FCC to take a hard look at Google Voice.

FCC responded to AT&T’s complaint by asking Google for more information about Google Voice, which Google claims is a free web-based free application designed to “supplement and enhance existing phone lines, not replace them.” Google wrote in an earlier response that AT&T is in a completely different situation, in part because the carrier charges users for their services and receives hundreds of millions of dollars in universal service subsidies. Google says that web applications like Google Voice and Skype shouldn’t be treated like traditional phone services and calls attention to AT&T’s hypocrisy in the whole matter.

Here’s the passage in the response where Google answers the questions of how and why Google Voice restricts calls to certain numbers:

In June 2009, Google Voice began noticing extremely high cost calls to a concentrated number of destinations. Our internal investigation revealed that the top 10 prefixes to U.S. destinations (NPA-NXX) accounted for 1.1 percent of our monthly U.S. traffic by volume – an unusually large number, and some 161 times the expected amount by prefix. In turn, this traffic accounted for 26.2 percent of our monthly U.S. cost – again, an unexpectedly large number. In addition to these grossly anomalous call patterns (which include the frequency and duration of calls to rural areas), we also were aware through various industry sources of certain in-bound traffic stimulation practices, and the identities and locations of some of the
carriers in question. Many of these businesses are located in rural areas with local carriers that charge unusually high rates for terminating traffic. Our own underlying carriers would assess Google Voice up to 39 cents per minute for some of this interstate traffic. As a result, based on an application of these data filters to the total universe of our outbound traffic, in August 2009 Google Voice began the practice of restricting calls to certain high-cost destinations. Currently, fewer than 100 U.S. telephone numbers are restricted based on an application of these filters.