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Google Voice service worries North Dakota Public Service Commission

FARGO -- On the heels of a Federal Communications Commission investigation, the North Dakota Public Service Commission plans to discuss whether Google Voice is blocking calls to rural areas.

Commissioner Brian Kalk placed the item on the commission's agenda for Wednesday after he heard about Minnesota looking into it.

"It's incumbent upon us to figure out how this is going to affect North Dakota," Kalk said. "Rural areas are the most underserved right now and if there is a place where we need more opportunities for telecommunication, it is rural areas."

The FCC said Friday it is investigating whether Google has violated telecommunications laws with its Internet phone service that has been refusing to connect some calls to rural areas.

Google Voice allows consumers to use one Google-issued number for home, work and cell phone, according to its Web site. The free service also offers conference calling, voice mail and unlimited texting.

Twenty members of Congress asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Google Inc.'s voice service. The letter to the FCC stated that in order to reduce expenses from access charges, Google may block calls to certain rural telephone exchanges.

Regulated common carriers are prohibited from doing that, but Google is asserting that Google Voice is not a traditional telephone service, the letter stated.

"Google maintains it ought to be allowed to block calls to rural telephone exchanges - a position we find ill conceived and unfair to our rural constituents," the letter stated.

The congressmen said in their letter they worry support for universal service will be undermined if Google is allowed to operate its telephone services outside the rules by which others operate. Rural consumers would be the most harmed, they said.

The FCC sent a letter to Google on Friday requesting information about Google Voice. Among its questions, the FCC wants to know how calls are routed, whether calls to particular telephone numbers are restricted and how customers are informed about the restrictions.

The FCC also wants to know to what extent the services are free, whether Google intends to charge for the services at some point and how Google pays for the services.

An AT&T spokesman said Google should explain to Congress and to the FCC whether its call-blocking will affect rural consumers and small businesses.

"We believe it does," said Tom Hopkins, adding that Google should play by the same rules.

"By all appearances, it seems Google is blocking calls on its new phone service, Google Voice, to phone numbers in rural areas to avoid paying access fees to rural carriers to connect phone calls," he said. "By blocking calls that its competitors are forced by law to connect, Google is saving money."

Among the 20 bipartisan members of Congress who signed the letter to the FCC were Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, D-S.D.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., did not sign the letter because they were not asked to sign it, according to spokeswomen for the congressmen.

Sandra Salstrom, Pomeroy's spokeswoman, said he would oppose attempts by any telephone service provider to block services to rural areas.

"Congressman Pomeroy believes that people living in rural areas should have the same access to telephone service as people living in urban areas," she said.

Google did not respond to a request for comment.