FCC stepping in on Minnesota’s Charter case

Ars Technica reports

The Federal Communications Commission is intervening in a court case in order to help Charter Communications avoid utility-style consumer protections related to its phone service in Minnesota. The FCC and Charter both want to avoid a precedent that could lead other states to impose stricter consumer protection rules on VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone service offered by cable companies.

The FCC has never definitively settled the regulatory status of VoIP. By contrast, traditional landline phone service and mobile phone service are both classified as “telecommunications services” by the FCC, a distinction that places them under the same Title II common carrier regulatory framework that applies to broadband Internet access. But the FCC has never decided whether VoIP services offered by cable companies are telecommunications or “information services,” which aren’t as heavily regulated.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) hoped to fill this regulatory void by trying to re-impose utility rules on Charter’s Spectrum phone service. (Charter used to be subject to Minnesota’s utility rules but evaded them starting in 2013 by transferring its phone customers to a different subsidiary.) Minnesota wants Charter to collect fees from customers in order to contribute to state programs that help poor people and the hearing-impaired access telephone service. Customers should also be able to appeal to the MPUC in the event of disputes with Charter, the state regulatory body says.

The article is good, detailed, worth reading in full. I’ll just borrow from their presentaiton of both sides…

Rule of law rendered obsolete?

Minnesota argues that VoIP phone service shouldn’t come with fewer consumer protections simply because it is provided over a different kind of network than traditional circuit-switched landline phones.

“This case presents an important question of nationwide significance: whether the rule of law may be rendered obsolete by technological innovation,” the state utility commission said.

The district court’s finding that Charter’s VoIP service is not telecommunications “strips the MPUC of its authority to regulate VoIP telephone service, [and] is contrary to binding decisions of this Court, FCC precedent, and the longstanding system of cooperative federalism established under the Telecommunications Act,” the state commission said.

The PUC also urged the appeals court to declare that Charter’s phone service is telecommunications “under the plain language of the Telecommunications Act.” The federal statute defines telecommunications as “the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received.”

Charter’s argument

Charter argues that the case hinges on just one question: whether Charter’s VoIP phone service is an information service under the federal communications statute.

Charter phone service “offers the ability to convert the protocol of calls when Charter’s network interconnects with other carriers,” thus fitting the statutory definition of information services as those that offer the “capability for… transforming [or] processing… information via telecommunications,” Charter wrote.

Minnesota is the only state in Charter’s footprint that “seeks to extend its regulatory reach to encompass advanced services,” the company wrote.

“Its approach not only ignores text and precedent, but would allow every state to impose idiosyncratic rules, creating a nationwide patchwork of requirements that would frustrate the FCC’s longstanding policy of insulating advanced services from such a regulatory morass,” Charter wrote.

Charter got support from other telecom companies that want to avoid stricter regulation of VoIP phone services. The brief filed by AT&T, Verizon, and USTelecom argues that VoIP is an information service because it converts voice signals from one format to another in order to carry phone calls to and from traditional landlines. AT&T and Verizon both offer utility landline phone services but are shifting toward VoIP services and want to shed the utility regulations that have long applied to phone networks.

Cable industry lobby group NCTA-The Internet & Television Association similarly filed a brief supporting Charter. “Preventing the imposition of utility regulation on VoIP will promote continued competition and benefit consumers,” NCTA wrote.

It’s hard when to consumers a phone is a phone is a phone. Internet access is internet access is internet access. But each supplier of phone/internet is treated so differently in terms of policy. That’s not a level playing field for the industry. What is also difficult is that consumers need protection. Increasingly residents need phone/internet access to live as active members of society. Yet not everyone can afford access – sometimes that a low-income issue and sometimes that’s a higher than normal prices issue. Universal service funds (in one shape or another) help get everyone online. Do we want everyone online or not? Because life without a phone/internet access is not a level playing field either. I guess the question is – which field do we want to level?

This entry was posted in Cable, MN, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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