If someone in Washington, D.C., is going to choke Internet telephony, don't expect to find the Federal Communications Commission's fingerprints on its neck.
That was FCC chairman Michael Powell's core message at an agency forum Monday on voice-over-Internet-protocol services that brought together federal and state regulators, pure-play VoIP companies and Time Warner Cable vice chairman and chief operating officer John Billock.
"No regulator, federal or state, should tread in the area without compelling justification for doing so," Powell said. "I dare say, our future depends on it."
Some states, including Minnesota and California, have moved to regulate VoIP, claiming that it's no different from plain old telephone service and should face comparable regulation.
But Powell is worried that regulation could harm the growth and development of VoIP before it has a chance to mature as a mass-market product.
"As we begin to consider what regulation, if any, is warranted for these new services, we should borrow the credo of the medical profession and first do no harm," Powell said. "Let's make sure the patient is sick before we offer a cure."
Powell also announced the formation of an FCC task force that will coordinate the agency's VoIP agenda, which is likely to conclude with a notice of proposed rulemaking in which Powell and the four other commissioners decide whether VoIP is an unregulated information service or a regulated telecommunications service.
Despite his strong deregulatory tone, Powell indicated that VoIP providers would likely need to ensure that service is affordable in all regions of the country, promotes public safety (such as 911 services) and assists law enforcement in tracking the communications of criminal suspects.
"Internet communications should remain as free from economic regulation as possible, but we must protect other critical national objectives in the new environment," Powell said.