- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

On Dec. 1, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) convened a public forum to discuss one of the most significant technologies to emerge in the telecommunications industry in years — Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). This new communications technology delivers voice calls over the Internet — a capability that will become more commonplace thanks to a number of recent developments. Although the FCC is only beginning to examine this issue, Chairman Michael Powell’s comments at the VoIP forum demonstrate the commission’s inclination to allow VoIP to develop free of regulatory shackles.

Mr. Powell said that VoIP is an example of “the kind of real change that is sweeping the telecommunications market.” However, the FCC chairman also recognizes that this type of “change produces anxiety for incumbents, for regulators, for politicians and for our citizens, who are confused by the dizzying array of new digital technologies by the new services.” Qwest, however, looks at VoIP with excitement rather than anxiety because we believe that this open-minded approach is not only good for our industry but, more importantly, good for customers.

The technology’s potential cost savings alone — from 20 percent to 30 percent — makes it a logical choice for customers. And we strongly believe that in today’s changing telecommunications marketplace, communications providers must view the business through the eyes of customers and deliver services that they need and want. That’s the only way to remain competitive; the “build it and they will come” approach is no longer a viable option, because customers, not providers, now drive the product-development cycle.

VoIP serves as further evidence that telecommunications competition is growing because of technological innovations, not regulatory oversight. Imagine if, in its infancy, the Internet had been over-regulated or unfairly and unnecessarily taxed? “The Information Superhighway” would have become one long toll road with very limited access. Instead, every day millions use the Internet to share ideas and information. Who among us would want it any other way?

Although some telecommunications providers fear VoIP, Qwest embraces it. We believe in the transforming power of VoIP. Last week, we rolled out a VoIP offering to consumers in Minnesota, and we expect to broaden this offering to more customers in 2004.

In October, when a U.S. District Court judge from Minnesota, Michael J. Davis, concluded that a VoIP provider “is an information service provider … [and] that information services such as those … must not be regulated by state law enforced by the MPUC [Minnesota Public Utilities Commission],” he opened the door to a broader, more aggressive deployment of VoIP. A technology that had been confined to a relative handful of large businesses and tech-savvy users now has the potential to reach further into the mass market.

So, why are certain constituencies opposed to the broad deployment of VoIP? Because they are afraid of what this might do to existing communication service offerings. They see a steady, reliable revenue stream, already threatened by wireless number portability, now under attack on a new front — VoIP. Single-minded business interests must be cleared to allow providers to do what’s best for consumers. Consumers deserve better than that.

If VoIP is allowed to grow on its own, then the sky is the limit. The question is how — and how quickly — we can get there. The explosive growth of the Internet over the last decade could be an appropriate benchmark. In addition, all of the necessary components are in place for consumers to discover the benefits of VoIP: broadband penetration in this segment is growing substantially, while increased competition and offerings have led to greater choice and lower costs.

Simply put, VoIP services are not a technology of the distant future — they are today’s reality. It all comes down to choice, and consumers should be allowed to make their own choices. VoIP adoption and growth are good for business but, most importantly, they’re good for customers. VoIP proves that technology is advancing at such a pace that regulators — no matter how well intentioned — cannot keep pace.

Dick Notebaert is chairman and CEO of Qwest Communications International Inc., outgoing chairman of the FCC’s Network Reliability and Interoperability Council and a member of President Bush’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee.

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