How is Monopoly Spelled?

by Colin Berkshire

Colin here. The world is shifting to VoIP. I know this because my 82 year old parents home phone service is now VoIP. If they use Voip then it is a happening trend.

What mystifies me is why VoIP carriers are not treated as peers with existing wireline companies. The obligation to peer is constitutionally protected in Washington State (seriously). The State Constitution, Section 19 reads:

SECTION 19 TELEGRAPH AND TELEPHONE COMPANIES. Any association or corporation, or the lessees or managers thereof, organized for the purpose, or any individual, shall have the right to construct and maintain lines of telegraph and telephone within this state, and said companies shall receive and transmit each other’s messages without delay or discrimination and all of such companies are hereby declared to be common carriers and subject to legislative control.

Railroad corporations organized or doing business in this state shall allow telegraph and telephone corporations and companies to construct and maintain telegraph lines on and along the rights of way of such railroads and railroad companies, and no railroad corporation organized or doing business in this state shall allow any telegraph corporation or company any facilities, privileges or rates for transportation of men or material or for repairing their lines not allowed to all telegraph companies. The right of eminent domain is hereby extended to all telegraph and telephone companies. The legislature shall, by general law of uniform operation, provide reasonable regulations to give effect to this section.

What this provision in the State Constitution means is that telephone companies must interconnect as peers. The language is clear and powerful.

Yet, the local wireline carriers refuse to peer with Voip companies. They do this by monopolizing the phone number assignments, thus requiring the VoIP company to make a payment to them every month for the use of a phone number.

Perhaps VoIP companies like Vonage don’t have good enough lawyers, or perhaps they are too timid. But the reality is that they are telephone companies and are peers of companies like Century Link and Verizon. Thus, full interconnection is simply required.

I’ll share a rather bizarre and amusing story from my own past…

One day 20 years ago I woke up in a particularly bad mood over having to pay long distance charges to call somebody whose house I could see out my living room window. It frosted me that it was long distance when I could look into their home from mine. So I started doing research. It wasn’t easy then, as it was pre-internet. But I stumbled into the Washington State Constitution Section 19 above. And, then it hit me like a ton of bricks.

So, I called up my local phone company (Then known as US West) and told their legal department “I hereby declare myself a telephone company and I request that you receive and transmit messages from my home as a peer.” The lawyer laughed, and asked what I wanted and I explained I wanted full interconnect as a Central Office. He laughed again, and said he would call me back.

A few days later, an engineer called me and asked what the specifications of my “Switch” was and as I had a small PBX in my home I replied: 2-wire, loop or ground start, DTMF or MF signaling. He thanked me and hung up.

A week later the lawyer called me back and asked if I had filed a Tariff with the State, as all telephone companies were required to do so. I called the Utilities and Transportation Commission who told me that they didn’t require tariffs from cooperative telephone companies. The lawyer at US West listened and said he would call back.

A month passed and I didn’t think much of it. Then, I got a call from the engineering department asking where most of my traffic would be to or from. I responded with the name of the major city 35 miles away and he thanked me. The next day he gave me an order number and told me the installation date was in three weeks for 4 circuits.

To my surprise, they ran 4 circuits the 35 miles (via carrier) and dropped them at my doorstep. I hooked them up to my PBX and had interconnection from the switch 35 miles away. Just like that.

Now, the real surprise was that I never got a bill. I called all over the state and never was charged anything. They even assigned me telephone numbers and people could call me on them. I essentially had free phone service. That service continued for another 15 years until I moved.

You see, the Washington State Constitution is pretty clear on the topic. The language is unambiguous:
“Any…individual, shall have the right to construct and maintain lines of telegraph and telephone within this state, and said companies shall receive and transmit each other’s messages without delay or discrimination.”

And, that is how I became the state’s smallest telephone company.

This brings me back to the current Voip carriers. They clearly fall under the Washington State Constitutional provision. They must be interconnected with by Century Link or any other telco.

I think the problem is that Vonage and other Voip carriers are borne of technology minds. They don’t have the history of the telephone industry nor do they think legally like phone companies do. I very well remember the Communications Act of 1934 which mandated interconnection and peering by all phone companies.

It is funny how history repeats itself. Here, in the year 2012 we are having the exact same problems that they had in the year 1912, 100 years ago. And, we’re having it for exactly the same reasons. We passed laws to fix that problem in 1934. And, then in the name of a new age we replaced those laws in the 1990s and the old problem came back to haunt us. (Is this remarkably similar to the banking crisis of 2007 which happened because we repealed the protective laws in the 1990s??)

There is an old saying:

“Those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it” (Winston Churchill)

The phone companies are making silly arguments that Vonage and other VoIP companies cannot be trusted to assign phone numbers to their customers. This is a silly argument.

The truth is that the local wireline carriers are violating the constitution to protect their illegal monopolies. If they cannot provide phone service, they can at least license out phone numbers.

Personally, I would love to see an extension of the North American Numbering system that would vastly expand the number of available numbers. Insert 1 or 2 digits (an admittedly painful process) and have true peer-to-peer phone calling. Phone numbers should (and could) just be DNS entries into a central database.

Well, given time I think this will happen. Or, if Congress is paid enough, perhaps not.