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CPSR Comment on Internet Telephone Petition

CPSR Comment on Internet Telephone Petition

2 May 1996

(Background: several companies and free software offerings allow users to talk to each other in real-time over the Internet. This is often called a kind of long-distance telephone. A coalition of long-distance providers called ACTA petitioned the FCC to temporarily stop and then to regulate “telephone calls” made in this manner. The rationale stated in the petition was that conventional long-distance carriers have to pay extra fees for interconnection to wide-area telephone networks (fees that go toward the network’s creation and maintenance); thus it is not fair for Internet users to forego the fees. The following declaration was submitted as part of a formal comment by attorney Robert Cannon for CPSR.)

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) is a 15-year-old grass-roots organization of 1,600 members who work in computer-oriented and related technical fields. Our mission is to educate the public, the media, lawmakers, and policy-makers about the effects of computers and networks on society and the implications for social policy. We are a nation-wide organization with many international members. One of our recent campaigns has been to represent the needs of the public in the development of the National Information Infrastructure. This document represents the position of CPSR on the ACTA Internet Phone Petition.


Viewed superficially, the use of real-time audio transmissions to carry on bi-directional voice conversations on the Internet is simply another way to provide telephone service. This view is the basis for the ACTA petition. Our contribution here is to look more closely at the technology of real-time audio and to offer a more technically accurate view of it as software and as a component of emerging Internet applications.

In this comment, we take a broad view of Internet applications and draw long-term conclusions about the effect that regulation or an injunction would have on research and development in the field of communications. Like the Congress and the FCC, we look forward to competition in new technologies that can lead to eventual improvements to the public in service and cost. The constellation of technologies that make up Internet telephone (and the related innovations discussed in this comment) promises just such improvements. Attempts to regulate an isolated application on the Internet, as we shall see, could kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

The main points we make are:

  • Real-time audio on the Internet is essentially just one component of the many useful applications being developed in digital networking.
  • Real-time audio is too different from telephone service, both technically and in terms of quality, to apply regulations related to telephony.
  • Internet telephone products are software, which are not regulated by the FCC.
  • Attempts to single out audio and regulate Internet telephone could prove harmful to technological progress in digital networking. Allowed to flourish, this software could drive the public’s demand for better underlying Internet service.
  • Regulation would run into insurmountable technical barriers.
  • If Internet telephone grows to the point where its use has a negative effect on funding for the local telephone infrastructure, a restructuring of the pricing structure should be found that takes technological evolution into account, rather than suppress it.

The Place of Audio in Emerging Internet Technologies

Increasingly, digital electronic networks are being used to carry graphical images, audio signals, and video signals. Once they are sampled and represented in numerical form, audio and video become just another form of digital data and can thus be carried over a digital network like any other traffic.

A large number of organizations are working hard to make the Internet more than a text-only medium. Many people see the availability of graphics, audio, and video as key to the broadening of digital networks as valuable media for education and other social goals. Voice transmission has been used for such experiments as Internet Talk Radio (in which files of audio data can be downloaded and played off-line) and more recent experiments in real-time radio transmission. CU-Seeme has been available for several years to provide audio and video links between individuals on the Internet. While the ACTA petition considers Internet telephone a “new technology,” we recognize it as a convergence of many existing techniques that grow naturally from Internet applications and audio sampling.

One of the most exciting trends in Internet technology is the combination of text, audio, and video in real-time collaborative work. Here, all data is transmitted as a single stream and then divided into constituent channels at the receiving end. We mention these collaborative multi-media applications because they illustrate the seamlessness of digital technologies. There is no technical basis for distinguishing between audio and other media. In all the digital networking technologies currently envisioned for the near future (such as Asynchronous Transfer Mode) transmissions are still divided into packets, and many kinds of data can be combined and intermingled.

Technical Implementation and Limitations of Real-Time Audio on the Internet

The products known as Internet telephone require equipment for recording and generating sound, plus software to transform it into transmission units acceptable as Internet traffic. The sender’s computer samples the sound generated by the sender and digitizes it. After compression, the sound samples are broken into transmission units that can be handled by lower levels of the Internet protocols. These packets are sent out on the Internet bearing the address of the receiver’s computer system and are multiplexed with other traffic. The medium for the traffic may be a local network or any other medium that can carry electronic signals, but most users at some point utilize telephone lines to cover long distances. The receiver’s computer collects and reassembles the packets, passing them up to higher layers that decompress the data and perform digital to analog conversion. The resulting signals are then relayed to speakers.

It is important to understand that Internet telephone is not a service. It is a collection of software components that users install on their computers. They can then transmit sound as often and as long as they want. Furthermore, a wide range of communication channels can be used for Internet traffic. While some have suggested that real-time audio can be subjected to long-distance tariffs because most users employ telephone lines at some point in their connection, the use of these lines is really incidental. Any other medium that can carry Internet traffic would has the same utility for real-time audio. Internet telephone, in short, is a form of software totally different from the services traditionally regulated by the FCC, and is not suited to the regulatory framework.

While Internet telephone is beginning to find commercial use, most real-time applications remain experimental because sound and image quality remain low for the vast majority of Internet users. The problems include:

  1. Slow transmission speed for most users. The bandwidth of each user’s Internet connection determines how many digitized bits can be transmitted at one time, and therefore the accuracy with which sound is reproduced. In most cases sound quality is not as good as telephones, although this could be remedied in the future as more users demand higher bandwidth and the demand causes costs to decrease.
  2. Half-duplex connections. Many products allow only one side to transmit at a time.
  3. Unreliability. Because all Internet traffic is broken into packets and sent over a variety of channels rather than a dedicated circuit, users can experience short delays.

If allowed to proceed, however, experiments in multimedia can lead to improvements in service through either physical upgrades or new protocols. We caution against interfering with demand for technologies that can lead to improvements in service over the long run. Regulating voice transmission on the Internet could be technological infanticide.

Implications of Singling Out Real-Time Audio for Regulation

Given that audio becomes just another form of packet data on the Internet, an attempt to halt or regulate its use would lead to technical dilemmas and unintended effects on technological progress. Internet phone technology cannot be banned, because several free products are already available and the only way to eliminate their use would be to exhaustively check the hard drive on every American’s computer. Any restrictions placed on U.S. manufacturers would simply cause them to move overseas. (In fact, one of the first companies to offer phone products for the Internet is located in a foreign country.) Furthermore, a ban would fly in the face of the basic principles that drive technological development: the promotion of competition, the desire for improved technology, and the goal of serving end-users better.

Special treatment of audio data, even if it were feasible, would place barriers in the way of technological development. A central premise of digital network research is that all data can be treated as fungible (that is, any type can be replaced with any other without changing the behavior of the network software). The protocols assume that all data will be reduced to a lowest common denominator and be freely combined with other forms of data. The most advanced and promising technologies, as stated earlier, mix several media. The technical challenges of trying to measure and price one of these data streams may render the technologies unusable. It is crucial, therefore, to the development of this technological frontier that audio be treated equally and not be subject to special regulation.

Inapplicability of the Telephone Model

While useful as a substitute for telephone use in some situations, real-time audio should not be compared to telephone service for several reasons.

  1. It is not a service. It is a software application that runs on users’ computers and utilizes networking protocols.
  2. It operates in an entirely different manner from telephone service, offering packet-based transmission instead of a dedicated circuit-switched connection. Under current conditions, this produces the differences in quality mentioned earlier in these comments.
  3. It can serve as one component of multimedia applications, thus giving rise to conditions where the audio portion of transmission cannot be separated from other Internet use.
  4. Different products use different protocols, so the owner of one product cannot necessarily communicate with the owner of another.

The important criterion for establishing rules is to preserve the viability and robustness of the medium. The ACTA petition, as we show in this comment, cannot be granted without imposing serious burdens on this promising area of development.

Equity in Pricing

CPSR certainly subscribes to the principles that funding of the telephone infrastructure must be assured, and that pricing of services should be equitable. But the use of the Internet for audio conversations is still an emerging technology, and due to the many changes may take place technically and financially, it is inadvisable to set up regulations now.

Current quality is hampered by bandwidth that is slightly too low for most users and unreliable delivery of packets. If the market for Internet telephony is encouraged to grow, these problems may be remedied by the installation of new hardware or the use of protocols that promise a higher quality of service. When the market adjusts in this manner, it may be accompanied by new pricing structures.

In any case, the public is not well served by placing barriers in the way of new technologies. Internet telephone is currently used too sparsely to have an impact on funding for the telecommunications infrastructure. Should it grow in popularity to the point where it has an impact, the entire pricing structure should be reviewed to determine where funds should come from. The main cost benefit of using Internet telephone, however, does not stem from avoiding fees but its use of the Internet for sending traffic.

Future Potential

Telecommunications industries should, in our view, encourage and improve the conditions for promising technologies that could reduce costs or provide new functions. Real-time audio transmission over digital networks offers intriguing potential benefits: lower costs, user options such as storing and filtering, and integration into collaborative multimedia. The ACTA position goes precisely in the wrong direction. Instead of furthering the potential of new technology, it puts barriers in the way.

For the reasons stated in this comment, CPSR recommends that the petition be rejected and that the FCC take no action related to Internet telephone at this time.

Andrew Oram, for CPSR

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