NCTA Commits to Some VoIP Rules

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The cable industry would agree to limited regulation of voice-over-Internet protocol services if cable companies were also granted certain rights normally afforded to traditional phone carriers.

The industry's position, which outlined a quid pro quo regulatory structure for cable-provided VoIP, was contained in a paper released last week by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

The central message of the paper, though, was that regulators should refrain from applying outdated rules to a nascent service that offers the best hope of breaking the Baby Bells' grip on the residential phone market.

"The overall direction of public policy should be toward a deregulatory environment in which even the most vital public policy objectives are secured through the lightest possible regulation," the NCTA said in the 39-page paper.

The paper's release was something of a surprise after NCTA president Robert Sachs told reporters in December that the cable trade group would not tip its hand before the Federal Communications Commission sought comment in an upcoming VoIP proceeding.

In the paper, the NCTA declared that cable companies whose VoIP services mirror current phone-to-phone service would provide 911 emergency service, contribute money to universal service, and assist the FBI in tracking criminals and terrorists that use the Internet to map their plans.

By contrast, cable's VoIP products, used in concert with video gaming or video chat, would not be subject to the phone-to-phone regulations, NCTA said.

The NCTA added that cable's VoIP service should not have to comply with regulations that have applied to the Baby Bells for decades, owing to the Bells' status as a local-telephone monopoly — still the case today for millions of consumers.

For example, the NCTA said inappropriate regulation would include rules "dictating the format and content of consumer bills" and rules mandating equal access to long-distance carriers; dialing parity; and public disclosure of retail rates prior to their effective date, also called tariffing.

"Regulators should make a comprehensive effort to identify and eliminate all such unnecessary rules. This will be an essential element of a successful VoIP policy," the NCTA said.

In articulating a minimalist regulatory approach, NCTA said government requirements on VoIP providers need to be balanced by a slate of government-enforced rights.

VoIP providers, NCTA added, were entitled to access to phone numbers, listings of customer numbers in phone books, compensation for the exchange of voice traffic, receipt of universal service funding, and access to poles, ducts and rights-of-way.

The NCTA's approach was unusual.

Normally, the scope of VoIP regulation would hinge on the technology's legal classification within the meaning of federal law, which contains separate definitions for telecommunications, telecommunications service and information service.

The NCTA said it regarded its VoIP blueprint as the right model for the FCC to follow regardless of how the technology is classified by the agency.

The cable trade group said it was also important for the FCC to ensure that VoIP's deployment was not frustrated by conflicting regulation at the state level.

"Fifty-one different approaches would make it difficult to develop VoIP service," NCTA said.

A lawyer often at odds with the cable industry argued that NCTA's paper tilted heavily in favor of deregulation of cable VoIP service.

"You have to give them credit for the chutzpah of asking," said the lawyer, who asked not to be named.

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