FCC Proposes Oversight, Pioneer Fears Hype at VoIP Conference

Jeff Berg
BOSTON — Discussion of VoIP services dramatically increased in pitch Tuesday as FCC Chairman Michael Powell likened it to the American Revolution while industry pioneer Jeff Pulver expressed serious concern over the hype surrounding the new technology.

“They’ve turned it into a fashion statement,” said Pulver, co-founder of Vonage, at the Boston-based Voice On the Net conference Tuesday. “The problem with being a fashion statement is that fashions come in and out.”

Pulver’s fears, expressed during the same conference in which Powell called the VoIP community a “revolutionary army on the march,” revolve around the amount of venture capitalists interested in the industry and possible government inference in the industry.

“In some cases, excessive hype is going to bring in excessive regulation,” said Pulver.

Pulver’s concerns may not be unfounded. In his opening remarks to the conference, Powell called for “bold action” and federal regulatory changes that would remove VoIP oversight from the hands of state governments and place it under the control of the FCC.

“We, too, need a new Constitution for the regulation of services, one benefiting the revolution,” said Powell.

“To hold that packets flying across national and international digital networks should be subject to state commission economic regulatory authority is to dumb down the Internet to march the limited vision of government officials,” Powell said. “That would be a tragedy.”

Instead, Powell suggested that VoIP services be subject exclusively to federal jurisdiction and said that he intended to bring the idea up before the FCC in the near future. Powell’s plan would curtail the current trend of state governments, such as New York and Minnesota, attempting to impose taxes and regulate VoIP providers in the same manner that phone companies are currently regulated.

“Many regulators have protested change, saying that VoIP is just a different way to make a phone call,” Powell said. “I guess one could say that the Constitution and the democratic form of government are just another way to run a nation.”

According to Powell, he intends to bring the issue before the FCC Commission after the presidential election but before the inauguration.

“Here we are on the precipice of something big,” said Powell. “Like our founding father, we will have to decide where we stand. Will we have the courage to stand for change, going boldly forward toward the promise of a better world? Or, will we stand timidly with the familiar?”