VoIP deregulation gets little attention from Iowa lawmakers

More than 40 lobbyists, including six from AT&T are registered on the bill

James Q. Lynch
Published: February 5 2014 | 5:16 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:14 am in

Not that the Iowa Legislature is the place to look for sexy, but “an act exempting Internet protocol-enabled service and voice over Internet protocol service from specified regulatory authority,” hasn’t exactly been a head-turner at the Capitol.

Except among lobbyists.

Dubbed the “full employment for lobbyists bill,” House Study Bill 590 has received scant attention from most lawmakers. However, more than 40 lobbyists, including six from AT&T are registered on the bill.

“While little attention has been given to it, you’d be hard pressed to find a Commerce Committee member in either chamber who has not been lobbied -- likely multiple times -- on this,” said Anthony Carroll, who lobbies for AARP.

“This is a big deal,” added Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Cedar Falls, a member of a HSB 590 subcommittee of the Commerce Committee that will give the bill its first hearing at noon Thursday in the House Lounge.

“That will be the beginning of the buzz factor,” Carroll predicted.

Iowa and Vermont are the only states that assert regulatory authority over Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). VoIP is a technology that uses digital signals in transmitting voice telephone calls. It doesn’t include other Internet services. In many cases, VoIP is one link – along with traditional analog transmitting services – in completing phone calls.

Led by AT&T, some, but not all, telecommunication companies are pushing to have Iowa change its law so VoIP is regulated the same way as wireless -- by the Federal Communications Commission.

However, people age 65 and older are more likely than any other age group to have landline telephone service in their home, Carroll said. They rely on basic local phone service as a lifeline to family, medical and other life necessities.

However, the industry warns that if regulation is left to the Iowa Utilities Board, Iowa could be left behind as telecommunications companies deploy new technologies on a national platform. Implementing new technology in Iowa will be a low priority for those companies if there are additional regulatory hurdles to jump.

Carroll is concerned that without the IUB’s involvement, Iowans lose their consumer protection.

“Regulation is consumer protection,” according to Kressig, who said he hasn’t taken a position on HSB 590.

The IUB, which took a look at deregulation last year, appears to agree that it should be involved in resolving consumer complaints as well as disputes between carriers that could increase the cost of telephone service.

The FCC, the utilities board said, “Is an inconvenient forum that is less likely to consider the specific concerns of Iowans.” Also, the IUB said the FCC is unlikely to as expeditious as the state utility agency in responding to consumer complaints.

While the industry is seeking “regulatory certainty,” Carroll said AARP, whose members rely on affordable phone service, want “connectivity certainty.”

VoIP is an alternative to traditional wireline local exchange service that when purchased on a stand-alone basis can, in some cases, cost twice as much as traditional wireline service. VoIP cannot be considered an economic substitute for stand-alone basic local service, according to AARP.

Consumers living on low incomes, in rural communities, or elsewhere could be abandoned or forced into unaffordable phone plans simply to stay connected to family, medical, and other life necessities, the group said.

The bill was introduced last year, but no action was taken after the IUB opened a Notice of Inquiry process. It received 31 sets of written comments from 15 companies. The majority, it said, favored a “technology-neutral” approach to regulation. HSB 590 would create an uneven playing field because VoIP and traditional service providers would be treated differently, according to the utilities board.

Kressig and House Commerce Committee Chairman Peter Cownie, R-West Des Moines, expect the HSB 590 will be approved by the subcommittee. They’re not sure what will happen after that. Cownie plans to have IUB Chairwoman Elizabeth “Libby” Jacobs, a former GOP lawmaker, address his committee.

Support for the bill is unlikely to break along party lines, they say. Lawmakers whose districts are served by small, rural telephone companies and cooperatives may be more likely to oppose HSB 590. Lawmakers from communities with more telecommunications options may support it.

 

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