In the coming weeks, a New Hampshire congressman plans to introduce legislation that will attempt to define and regulate voice over IP (VOIP) while preventing the Federal Communications Commission from tacking on additional regulations.

In an interview with, Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) said he plans to introduce legislation in the first few weeks of the legislative term that would first attempt to define VOIP, which allows voice communication over the Internet. Sununu said that staffers have already developed several drafts, which so far have not been submitted for other legislators to review.

VOIP may well become a battleground during 2004. During a panel discussion at the Consumer Electronics Show here that featured nearly a dozen legislators from both sides of the aisle, Sununu said that he considered VOIP “one of the most important technologies over the next 12 months” and advocated a hands-off approach toward developing the technology. FCC chairman Michael Powell, meanwhile, said this week that he considers “everything over IP” one of his to-do items for 2004.

Although VOIP technology has been around in some form for a number of years, the recent spread of broadband has made the technology more appealing.

VOIP works by using the IP protocols of the Internet to transmit voice packets. Special software from Skyper Ltd., Vonage Holding Corp. and others attempts to minimize the delay between packets, assembling them into a seamless stream that mimics a phone with or without special handsets. In December, AT&T, Qwest Communications and Time Warner Cable all announced VOIP commitments.

At a regulatory level, however, the issue has become more complicated.

VoIP–Telecom or Internet?

A federal judge overturned a Minnesota ruling that originally used the “looks like a duck, quacks like a duck” analogy to label VOIP a telecommunications technology that should be regulated as such. A federal judge later overturned the ruling.

“I think it would first be helpful to establish a clearer definition of the [VOIP] technology,” Sununu said, the first step in determining how it should be regulated.

Sununu said that had not yet established if the proposed legislation would be co-authored with other Republicans or even go across the aisle to Democrats. Sununu sits on both the Senate subcommittee for Science, Technology and Space, which regulates the Internet and is chaired by Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), and on the Senate subcommittee for Telecommunications, which governs both the telecommunications industry and the FCC and is chaired by Conrad Burns (R-Mont.).

Sununu said the legislation was intended to place limits on the FCC’s ability to add additional regulatory constraints. The proposed bill will also address the issue of locating a customer for 911 emergencies as well as universal-access restrictions.

“Unfortunately, if left unattended, I’m afraid the benefits of VOIP will be smothered by state and federal regulators,” Sununu said in a published statement released Friday. “A clear pre-emptive remedy is needed now: Congress must establish pre-eminence of federal authority in this area and provide major direction for any action by the [FCC].”

Sununu’s plan

“I am preparing legislation to preserve the free regulatory framework that has allowed VOIP applications to reach mainstream consumers,” the statement added. “VOIP providers should be free from state regulation, free from the complexity of FCC regulations, free to develop new solutions to address social needs, and free to amaze consumers.”

The FCC’s Powell has also been in favor of giving the market some rein in making its own decisions. Certain policy aspects, like universal service, may require additional oversight. “All this technology is raising questions about the right way to do that,” Powell said this week.

Executives from AT&T, Qwest Communications and Time Warner Cable were unavailable Saturday for comment on the proposed legislation. Mitchell Slepian, a spokesman for Vonage, Edison, N.J., said that the company has already participated on panels organized by the FCC and has been on contact with government officials about the VOIP issue. Vonage is also working on developing solutions to 911 restrictions, he said, although he declined to comment on when they might be available.

When asked if Vonage would prefer congressional or FCC oversight, Slepian replied, “That’s an interesting question. We know this is going to be regulated some day, and if it is regulated we’d prefer it to be at the federal level, instead of state by state, where California has one law and New York has another.”

Still, Slepian added, Vonage hopes that the end result is a flat moratorium on new legislation for a period of time, perhaps five years. “VOIP is an emerging technology,” Slepian said. “We’d prefer to let it grow and develop.”