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When policy-makers overhauled the telecommunications landscape in 1996 and opened the local telephone market to competition for the first time, technology professionals asked what would happen to phone regulation once voice services are delivered over the Internet. Now, almost eight years later, Washington is ready to begin answering that question.

The issue forces lawmakers and regulators to take an entirely new look at communications because the telephone network and the Internet sit at opposite ends of the regulatory spectrum. If both systems carry voice calls, many are asking why the government should treat them differently.

The Federal Communications Commission will open the discussion with a public forum Dec. 1, and will then issue a set of proposals on the migration of telephone services to IP-based networks. After the agency reviews comments from the industry and public, it will issue a new set of regulations, probably by the end of next year, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

According to Powell, the progress in deployment and financing of VoIP has recently accelerated.

“These VOIP providers are introducing innovations previously unheard of in voice communications, such as the ability to choose from over 100 area codes and to take your number with you anywhere in the world as long as you can access the Internet,” Powell said in his letter to Wyden.

(Click here
for a copy of Chairman Powell’s letter.

Traditional telephone networks, which were founded as regulated monopolies, are subject to rules that ensure, among other things, that service is affordable and available for everyone and that the 911 public safety system works.

In August the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ruled that it has jurisdiction over VOIP providers, and a number of other states are considering similar issues. Next week, the California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to review the possibility of regulating Internet voice traffic the way traditional telephony is regulated.