A battle over rural telephones

Type "Google Voice rural" in a Google search box and a computer user quickly will discover that one of the oldest high-tech companies is taking on one of the new ones, with the rural Upper Midwest as battleground.

The country’s oldest telephone company, AT&T, claims Internet search giant Google’s new telephone service violates federal law by blocking some calls to rural Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa.

Google counters that all it is trying to do is avoid some specific overly expensive rural telephone numbers.

Federal officials will be left to settle the dispute. But Google’s call blocking has raised the ire of many rural folks.

The spat about the new Google Voice service "is separating rural from urban, effectively creating a chasm in the digital divide and effectively blocking calls into and out of rural areas," Grand Forks, N.D., pizza restaurant owner Matt Winjum wrote to Minnesota and North Dakota leaders after reading a Wall Street Journal article touching on the dispute.

"The reason Google is blocking service appears to be related to the increased costs involved with providing this service to these areas," Lake County (Minn.) Commissioner Thomas Clifford wrote to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. "Yet, the consequence of this action puts us at a distinct disadvantage when our residents do not have access to the best communications tools and latest technology available elsewhere."

Dan Johanneck of the Crookston Housing and Economic Development Authority added his voice: "Apparently, rural voices need not apply for Google Voice."

Google’s new service, still being tested and not available to everyone, provides users with ways to manage telephone calls, including free long distance service.

"You can place free calls to any U.S. number," a Google Web video tutorial promises.

Google spokesman Dan Martin has a different story: "Our intention is to block certain numbers."

Martin said Google’s free service blocks numbers because some rural telephone exchanges charge exorbitant fees to connect long distance calls to specific numbers. However, he added, the aim is only to block calls to some numbers, not all numbers in an area.

A test to three Detroit Lakes, Minn., numbers was representative of what is happening.

When Google Voice was used to call U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson’s campaign office, it would not connect. The same happened when the office’s fax machine was called.

However, a Google Voice call to the Detroit Lakes Newspapers went through without a hitch.

Martin could not explain why a congressional campaign office’s number was blocked (and Peterson has received no complaints).

Neither Google nor AT&T could give an idea about how many numbers were blocked.

AT&T has complained to the Federal Communications Commission, which is investigating.

Google attorney Richard Whitt wrote in a recent blog that some rural phone numbers are connected to "adult sex chat lines and ‘free’ conference calling centers to drive high volumes of traffic," a practice for which local phone companies may charge higher fees. Those are the numbers Google says it wants to block.

However, President Randy Young of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance, said only one company in the state has been accused of that so-called "traffic pumping," and that has not been proven.

Telephone companies are required to put through all calls to any U.S. number, AT&T’s Tom Hopkins said. Martin, however, countered that Google Voice is not a traditional telephone service provider because it requires existing home, business or mobile telephones; that means, he added, Google Voice does not fall under rules requiring service to all numbers.

AT&T discovered the Google situation when it began investigating "a pattern of call blocking that was primarily in rural areas," Hopkins said.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission briefly discussed the issue Wednesday, but decided it had no authority to take action, Commissioner Kevin Cramer said.

While Cramer said the PSC has received no complaints, he said there appears to be a reason to check into the AT&T accusations.

"There is some hypocrisy there," Cramer said of Google, which has an official policy of treating all Internet users the same.

Young said he has heard no complaint about Google Voice, but his organization is watching the situation.

"Google is attempting to become what I perceive as a long distance company," Young said. "If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is a duck."

Some rural members of Congress have complained about Google Voice. And a Minnesota House committee chairman stands ready to investigate the situation.

“If Google wants to be a phone service, it ought to comply with the rules that apply to phone service providers, namely providing service to rural areas,” Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said. “If they want to be viewed as an Internet service, then they ought to comply with Net neutrality rules, which require the service to be accessible to all customers. Whichever way you cut it, it seems to me Google is out of line here.”

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Most complaints about Google Voice have been that calls from the service to some rural telephone numbers are being blocked, but a Gackle, N.D., man says Google is discriminating against rural residents in another way.

Tom Pool loves Google Voice — "It’s really cool and it’s free" — except for Goog-411, a service providing information about businesses.

Pool said that if he needs a drug store in Fargo, he can call Goog-411 on his telephone and he hear a list of drug stores. He has used the service to find a hardware store in Jamestown, 38 miles northeast of his home.

But when he tried to find something in the tiny towns of Gackle, Alfred or Jud, he can find nothing on Goog-411. "It is just non existent if you are on Google."

Google’s Dan Martin was at a loss to why small-town businesses may not show up on Goog-411. However, he said, it is not related to blocking long-distance Google Voice calls to some rural numbers.

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