Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Bring Out Your Lawyers

One of the most interesting (where by "interesting" I mean "capable of generating megabytes of informed, partially-informed, and wholly-uninformed debate") aspects of the FCC VoIP E911 Order is the determination of exactly to whom it applies.

For the one or two of you out there who might not have read it yet, the Order identifies something called "interconnected VoIP services," and defines it as having the following characteristics:

(1) the service enables real-time, two-way voice communications;
(2) the service requires a broadband connection from the user’s location;
(3) the service requires IP-compatible CPE; and
(4) the service offering permits users generally to receive calls that originate on the PSTN and to terminate calls to the PSTN.

VoIP provided by a cable MSO? Check.
Bring-Your-Own-Access residential VoIP such as Vonage or AT&T CallVantage? Check.
VoIP as part of Xbox Live? Nope.
VoIP as part of a chat application with no PSTN dial-in or dial-out capability? Nope.
VoIP tie-lines between PBXs? Nope. (No inherent dial-in/dial-out.)
Skype? Hmmm.

Well, it enables real-time, two-way voice communications. It requires IP-compatible CPE (since footnote 77 explicitly states that "IP-compatible CPE includes... a personal computer with a microphone and speakers, and software to perform the conversion (softphone)."

The other two traits are more interesting.

The Skype application makes use of adaptive, low-bit-rate codecs, and Skype could certainly claim that a broadband connection is not inherently required.

And Skype, in and of itself, does not "permit users generally to receive calls that originate on the PSTN and to terminate calls to the PSTN." You need to buy SkypeIn and buy SkypeOut minutes for that.

It'll be interesting to see Skype (or, more precisely, Skype's lawyers) respond to the Order. As has been noted several places, they've already said it doesn't apply to them at all - though I haven't seen them play the "no broadband connection required" card yet. I don't know if that argument will fly; keep your eyes open for the next Ex Parte Skype has with the FCC to see what arguments they make. They may have to fall back to an argument that Skype per se isn't an interconnected VoIP service, but Skype plus In plus Out is. (Which Richard points out the FCC pretty much concludes in Para 58.)

Next up: Jurisdiction.