US lawmakers investigate telecom 'traffic pumping'

Representatives send letters asking about high access fees charged by some carriers

Three high-profile U.S. lawmakers have begun an informal investigation into high access charges that some rural telephone carriers charge to competitors, on the heels of complaints about the practice from Google and some large carriers.

The letter, from Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and two other leaders on the committee, comes after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission announced last Friday that it was investigating Google for refusing to connect some calls through its Web-based Google Voice service to rural carriers with high access charges.

In some cases, the rural carriers partner with adult sex chat lines and conference calling services that take advantage of the high access fees to drive traffic to the small carriers, critics say. The practice is sometimes called access stimulation or traffic pumping.

The lawmaker letters, sent to Qwest Communications International, AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Communications, ask the large carriers about the access fees charged by rural carriers and the ways the large carriers are trying to resolve traffic pumping disputes.

An investigation into Google's decision to block calls to carriers with high access charges "must also examine the existing access charge regime and purported abuses of that system," said the letter, also signed by subcommittee chairmen Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, and Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat. "Just last month, the Iowa Utilities Board found that eight local exchange companies had engaged in a traffic pumping scheme in which they were providing free calling services for indecent or pornographic content. These companies were attempting to increase access charge revenues by 10,000 percent."

Some large carriers have been complaining about traffic pumping for years. In April 2007, AT&T sent a letter to the FCC, asking the agency to investigate high access fees.

AT&T is happy to see Congress interested in the issue, said Michael Balmoris, a spokesman. "We are happy to assist them in their investigation," he said. "We are especially eager to provide Members of Congress with information related to VoIP providers who are still blocking calls with impunity, which is crucial to understanding the scope of the harm to consumers and businesses in rural America."

Qwest also said it would be glad to cooperate with the Commerce Committee's investigation. "Traffic pumping is an unlawful practice that has harmed and misled consumers, regulators, and long distance providers like Qwest," Steve Davis, Qwest's senior vice president of public policy and government relations, said in a statement. "Traffic pumping costs American consumers millions of dollars and denies parents the ability to safeguard their children from obscene and inappropriate material."

Google, in a statement, said Congress should encourage the FCC to fix access charges rules. "We agree that the current carrier compensation rules are broken," a spokeswoman said.

Google has defended its practice of blocking calls to some rural exchanges by saying it's offering a free online service that's not intended to compete with traditional voice service. Also, Google Voice is only available to a limited number of people invited to preview the service, the company said.

AT&T has complained that Google is violating net neutrality rules it supports by refusing to connect the calls.

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