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Has non-Interconnected VoIP Been Legally Defined as a “Communications Technology”?

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There’s been a debate since the early days of non-interconnected VoIP over whether the technology counted as a bit of communications technology or an information technology. This sounds like a matter of semantics but legally speaking there’s a big difference between the two. Simply put information technology and communications technology are regulated differently and a whole lot of people fear non-interconnected VoIP is going to be named a communications technology and will start to face the same sort of regulation as the incumbent telecom players.

But here’s the thing- non-interconnected VoIP has pretty much already been named a communications technology, making it subject to a whole bunch of regulations that information technology finds itself immune from, some which non-interconnected VoIP has already begun to adopt.

Laying Down Labels

Non-interconnected VoIP effectively received its communications classification with the 21st Century Communications and Vide Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA), which had a lot to say about what it called “non-interconnected VoIP service.” This is a broad-ranging classification that applies to pretty much any technology which involves “real-time voice communication” via IP (that hasn’t already been identified as an interconnected VoIP service). The FCC’s rulings within this act seem fairly limited as they pretty much only define strictures for service registration with and contribution to the TRS, but the simple fact this act labels non-interconnected VoIP as a “communications service.”

In other words- even though the CVAA doesn’t really lay down any substantial or important regulations on the world of non-interconnected VoIP by labelling this technology a communications service, and by assumption not an information service, the act sets a precedent by which regulators may be able to gain a stranglehold over the industry.

But Isn’t Non-Interconnected VoIP Already Regulated?

Yes, though that’s sort of beyond the point.

Even before the CVAA passed interconnected VoIP was already subject to its fair share of regulations. In fact, interconnected VoIP was already subject to many of the same regulations as traditional telephony technologies such as PTSN lines and mobile devices. Interconnected VoIP already had to meet obligations to emergency communication functionality 911 and E-911 before being officially classified as a communications technology, and that was just the start of the service’s regulations. VoIP providers also need to contribute to the USF, they need to provide access to disabled individuals, they need to offer local number portability, they need to pay regulatory fees and are subject to disciplining actions if they violate FCC rulings.

Long story short- even though non-interconnected VoIP had largely remained free from regulation fears before CVAA interconnected VoIP was already strung up in much the same way as traditional telecom services.

The regulation of interconnected VoIP and the labelling of non-interconnected VoIP as a communications technology and not an information technology sets an intimidating series of precedents all but guaranteeing non-interconnected VoIP will soon find itself as deeply regulated as its telecom cousins. Right now there’s already a strong lobbying push to make non-interconnected VoIP comply with USF contributions.

Looking Forward

So what does this mean for the future of the broader world of non-interconnected VoIP? By looking at the history of interconnected VoIP and last year’s ruling that non-interconnected VoIP is a communications technology we can safely infer that non-interconnected VoIP is likely to go down the exact same regulatory road as interconnected VoIP. Which means within just a couple of years we’re unlikely to see any sort of VoIP that isn’t regulated in a nearly identical manner as the traditional telecom carriers.

Does this mean good or bad things for the VoIP industry and those individuals and organizations who utilize VoIP services? It’s hard to definitively say at this point, but one thing is very clear- the time of a largely unregulated VoIP market rapidly draws to a close.

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