VoIP Pioneers Pan Title II

A group of VoIP pioneers tabbed "tech elders" told reporters Monday that they are very concerned about the impact of the FCC's Title II decision on their business.

Among those on the call to express their unhappiness was Bryan Martin, chairman of VoIP provider 8x8. He said he did not think the decision would survive court review, and in the review would waste time, cost money in lawyers fees, create uncertainty and result in going back to square one.

He pointed out that back in the early 2000s, his startup company was getting chased by the state of California and told it was illegal to deliver voice on the public 'net without being a licensed carrier (per Title II requirements).

One major issue is that VoIP could be treated not as an app but as a service, said Jeff Pulver, co-founder of Free World Dialup, later Vonage (and the "Pulver" in the FCC's 2004 "Pulver declaratory ruling that Free World Dialup was an unregulated information service not a telecommunications service).

Pulver said that back in 1985 he was worried about being sued and being threatened with Title II, suggesting those fears had resurfaced with the FCC's vote last week.

He said anyone dismissing the potential financial impact of Title II "don't understand how Wall Street thinks." He said telco suppliers are going to be reforecasting earnings. "That is not imagined. That is very much real." He also said that as someone who likes to innovate and disrupt, "having to go to the FCC for permission to be disruptive will take away the incentive for many people." Then there is living in fear of doing something and then finding out 'Oh my god, somebody is going after me because of what I am doing.' Ignorance is no excuse, but neither is having a law that creates fear, uncertainty and doubt."

Asked why so many Silicon Valley tech companies did support Title II, the "tech elders" suggested that was an overstatement.

VoIP pioneer Daniel Berninger (Bell Labs, Free World Dialup, Vonage) said that there was an expression that "we don't know who invented water, but we don't think it was a fish." His point was that the information services definition had been a "bubble" over Silicon Valley protecting them  from the FCC. "Silicon Valley could ignore the FCC when the information services category was there, and now they can't."

Berninger convened the group as part of his efforts as founder of the Voice Communication Exchange Committee, which is pushing for a speedy IP (HD voice) transition. The "elders" include John Perry Barlow, Mark Cuban, Tim Draper, Charlie Giancarlo, Bryan Martin, George Gilder, Jeff Pulver and Michael Robertson, who filed comments at the FCC on the problem with Title II.

On the call, Barlow, who in addition to being a cyber rights activist penned some lyrics for the Grateful Dead, said that he would not say there had been "widespread and enthusiastic support for Title II in Silicon Valley." He said many of the larger tech companies are afraid of the FCC and don't want to do anything to alienate it. "So, they have kind of laid low on this. But almost everybody I know who is a major technologist down here is in favor of anything that will maintain a level playing field, but have limited willingness to believe that Title II is the best answer."

Bryan Martin agreed, fishing for another water metaphor: "This is such a complex issue that unless you are swimming in the pool the water all looks like it's the same depth." By which he means that there is widespread support for network neutrality as a concept. "The question becomes how you implement it. I cringe when I see the CEO of Mozilla on the front page of Firefox celebrating. Unless you have lived through it the way those of us on the call have, you don't understand [and he included a lot of his "Internet colleagues" in the Valley] the wide-ranging impact decisions like this can make."

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.