Internet phone calls that are free-of-charge to the consumer and don't come in contact with the traditional phone network won't be regulated by any level of government, the Federal Communications Commission ruled Thursday.
The 3-2 vote marked the agency's first attempt to come to grips with the Internet's capability to complete phone calls the same way it routes electronic mail and instant messages around the global computer network.
Last year, a company called Pulver.com -- which is better known as a sponsor of Internet-related business conferences -- asked the FCC to rule that its Internet-based phone service, called Free World Dialup (www.pulver.com/fwd), was exempt from regulation.
More precisely, Pulver.com requested a ruling that FWD was neither telecommunications nor a telecommunications service as those terms are defined in federal telecommunications law.
The agency not only granted Pulver.com's request, but it went one better: It affirmatively ruled that FWD was an unregulated "information service" within the FCC's jurisdiction only.
The distinction between information service and telecommunications service is critical because the FCC does not regulate the former and heavily regulates the latter.
The commission's ruling, however, did not mean that voice-over-Internet-protocol services provided by cable companies would automatically be accorded the same hands-off treatment.
In a separate ruling, the agency unanimously agreed to launch a rulemaking on regulations that would apply to VoIP providers like cable companies and Vonage Holdings Corp. that charge fees to route calls over IP networks and that exchange traffic with traditional phone carriers.
FCC chairman Michael Powell, who wants VoIP services to incubate without regulation, said FWD was an information application just like e-mail and IM
"Such services have never been held to be telecom services," Powell said. "I think this is the correct answer four square on existing law."
FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who issued a dissent, complained that the FCC deregulated FWD before deciding critical matters related to law enforcement, universal service, federal-state relations and emergency 911 service.
"I'm afraid we are leaping before we looking," Copps said.