Does Comcast Phone Service Violate FCC Rules?
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has mandated that Philadelphia-based Comcast Corporation submit a response by Jan. 30 to questions regarding the company’s broadband network management practices.
The government expressed concern that Comcast could be operating as an unregulated telecommunications company, providing it with a competitive advantage on an unlevel playing field. It also sought answers as to why the company had "omitted from its filings to the commission" information related to its Internet phone service.
In a Jan. 18 letter, the FCC wrote it seeks clarification "to an apparent discrepancy" between Comcast’s earlier broadband network filing and its "actual or advertised" practices.
The sound quality of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone calls placed over the network during periods of congestion presents a serious issue. Comcast stated that consumers may find that VoIP calls "sound choppy" during busy times, and an appendix of the filing draws no distinction between Comcast’s own VoIP offering and those offered by its competitors.
According to the FCC, however, Comcast’s Web site suggests "such a distinction does in fact exist," as the Web site claims that "Comcast Digital Voice is a separate facilities-based IP phone service that is not affected by this (new network management) technique."
The government agency asked Comcast to clarify its business practices regarding VoIP. "We request that Comcast explain why it omitted from its filings to the Commission the distinct effects that Comcast’s new management technique" has on the company’s VoIP offering versus that of its competitors, the FCC wrote. It also asked for "a detailed justification for Comcast’s disparate treatment of its own VoIP service," as compared to that offered by other VoIP providers on its network.
The FCC further requested detailed information as to how Comcast’s Digital Voice service was "facilities-based" as well as how that offering used Comcast’s broadband facilities. In particular, the FCC was interested in ascertaining whether Comcast Digital Voice affected network congestion in a manner different from other VoIP services.
The "discrepancy" the FCC refers to could have significant implications for Comcast because its distinct phone service could potentially classify it as a telecommunications company. Such a decision would subject it to a whole new set of government rules and regulation.
In the letter, the FCC stated, "Given that Comcast is apparently maintaining that its VoIP service is a ‘separate facilities-based’ telephone service that is distinct from its broadband service, and differs from the service offered by ‘VoIP providers that rely on delivering calls over the pubic Internet’ (according to Comcast’s website), it would appear that Comcast’s VoIP service is a telecommunications service subject to regulation under the communications act."
As a result of the FCC’s position, the burden of proof is on Comcast to "explain any reason the commission should not treat Comcast’s VoIP offering as a telecommunications service" subject to the same intercarrier compensation obligations as other facilities-based telecommunications carriers. The FCC concluded that Comcast’s VoIP service "is not yet complying with such intercarrier compensation obligations", and requested the company’s response by Jan. 30, 2009. A call to Comcast went unreturned by press time.
Chris Freind can be reached at [email protected]