Charter gets FCC support in Minnesota battle over VoIP service regulation

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Looking to codify cable products as lightly regulated “information services” on both the federal and state levels, the FCC has come to bat in a battle between Charter Communications and the state of Minnesota over the regulation of VoIP.

According to an amicus brief obtained by Ars Technica, the agency is trying to convince a Minnesota federal court not to side with with the state’s Public Utilities Commission, which wants to classify Charter’s internet-based phone services under the more tightly regulated common carrier designation. 

"The Minnesota PUC's sweeping demand that Charter comply with the state's full panoply of legacy telephone regulations, even though the FCC has not classified VoIP as a telecommunications service, threatens to disrupt the national voice services market,” the FCC brief said.

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RELATED: Comcast asks the FCC to make sure states can’t pass their own net neutrality laws

The FCC, focused on deregulation under Republican leadership, is about to unveil new laws over-riding 2015 net neutrality rules that classified internet service providers as common carriers. Comcast and Verizon have recently urged the FCC to try to ensure that its deregulation efforts aren’t undermined at the state level, and that’s exactly what the agency appears to be doing here. 

As Ars Technica noted, the FCC has never formally ruled that VoIP services provided by cable companies are “telecommunications services,” which are regulated under its 2015 Title II rules under “common carrier” framework.

The Minnesota PUC is trying to seize the opening, attempting to force Charter to collect fees in its VoIP service for the economically disadvantaged and the hearing impaired. The PUC also wants to be a consumer recourse in disputes involving Charter’s phone service.

Charter has already prevailed in U.S. District Court, but the PUC has taken the issue to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which received the FCC’s brief two weeks ago. 

The FCC argued that the case has nationwide ramifications.

“A judicial declaration that VoIP is a telecommunications service—which is what appellants seek in this appeal—could potentially subject VoIP providers not only to Minnesota's state regulatory scheme, but also to the full panoply of federal common carriage requirements found in Title II of the Communications Act,” the agency said. “And if the Minnesota PUC's efforts to regulate VoIP service were upheld, all 50 states could potentially seek to impose a patchwork of separate and potentially conflicting requirements on VoIP service.”

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