Will the FCC regulate Internet phone calls?

Hearings start today, here is the full story. A month ago a Federal court ruled that state governments may not regulate such calls. And the FCC traditionally has left the Internet alone. Nonetheless long-distance service over the Internet costs only a fraction of most calling plans, which threatens both telecommunications companies and government revenues from long-distance calls.

The problem has arisen, in part, because of previous regulatory decisions, most specifically access fees:

Long-distance companies now pay local companies $25 billion a year in “access charges.” The fees cover the cost of connecting long-distance customers to the local network. The long-distance companies argue they should not have to pay access charges for calls that travel over the Internet.

In other words, Internet calling is cheaper in part because the calling services do not have to pay access fees to the long distance network. Over time we can expect such accees fees to fall apart, they will prove to be neither a political nor an economic equilibrium. Here is what one industry spokesman predicts:

Nortel Networks, the Canadian telecommunications equipment maker, estimates that local telephone companies could cut their costs of running a network by 30 percent by shifting to a Internet-based network. Nortel also contends that carriers can cut their capital investment costs by 50 percent. “The market is absolutely moving in the direction of the convergence of these networks,” said Martha Bejar, president of carrier solutions at Nortel.

The bottom line: Competition will become more intense, calling will continue to become cheaper, but the long-run problem of paying for the telecommunications network will become more severe.


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