FCC Backs Charter in VoIP Case

The FCC has weighed in with a federal court to support Charter's challenge to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission's application of legacy Title II telecom regs to its interconnected VoIP phone service.

The case is being heard by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Minnesota. "The Minnesota PUC has adopted a blunderbuss approach to VoIP regulation that threatens to disrupt the national voice services market," the FCC's legal team says.

In an amicus brief in support of Charter, the FCC said that Minnesota's attempts to apply the "full panoply" of Title II-based legacy phone regs on Charter's advanced VoIP service does not square with FCC precedent, which it argues the PUC has misinterpreted, or perhaps mischaracterized, and "and raises serious questions as to whether the PUC Order can be squared with the federal regulatory scheme."

The FCC has so far declined to classify interconnected VoIP--two-way TDM-based phone service that connects to the public switched phone network--is an information service not subject to common carrier regs, or a telecommunications service that is.

Instead, it has dealt with various issues that arose in rulings on, among other things, access charges, universal service contributions, privacy protections, accessibility requirements and the veritable host of others.

The FCC pointed out to the court that while the PUC had argued, for instance, that without treating Charter’s VoIP service as a common carrier, it could not address issues surrounding entry certification, state public assistance and slamming, the FCC said each of those were already dealt with in FCC orders. And if the state had other issues, it could seek a declaratory ruling from the FCC, as other states had in asking the FCC to extend universal service contributions to VoIP, which it did back in 2006.

But the issue was bigger than that, the FCC signaled.

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"The Minnesota PUC’s sweeping demand that Charter comply with the state’s full panoply of legacy telephone regulations, even though the FCC has not classified VoIP as a telecommunications service, threatens to disrupt the national voice services market," FCC General Counsel Tom Johnson told the court in the brief. "By subjecting fixed VoIP service to an extensive array of state public-utility requirements, the PUC’s Order is likely to stifle competition and innovation in emerging VoIP technology and could deprive consumers of access to valuable new services."

And the FCC said the implications reached beyond that state's proposed regs to the panoply of federal common carrier regs in Title II, and if the Minnesota PUC were successful, it could lead to other states adopting a patchwork of separate VoIP regulatory schemes.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.