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In the Midwest, the newest fight is Google versus AT&T

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In the Midwest, the newest fight is Google versus AT&T
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

ST. PAUL -- Type "Google Voice rural" in a Google search box and a computer user quickly will discover that one of the oldest high-tech companies is taking on one of the new ones, with the rural Upper Midwest as battleground.


The country's oldest telephone company, AT&T, claims Internet search giant Google's new telephone service violates federal law by blocking some calls to rural Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa.

Google counters that all it is trying to do is avoid some specific overly expensive rural telephone numbers.

Federal officials will be left to settle the dispute. But Google's call blocking has raised the ire of many rural folks. The spat about the new Google Voice service "is separating rural from urban, effectively creating a chasm in the digital divide and effectively blocking calls into and out of rural areas," Grand Forks, N.D., pizza restaurant owner Matt Winjum wrote to Minnesota and North Dakota leaders after reading a Wall Street Journal article touching on the dispute.

"The reason Google is blocking service appears to be related to the increased costs involved with providing this service to these areas," Lake County (Minn.) Commissioner Thomas Clifford wrote to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. "Yet, the consequence of this action puts us at a distinct disadvantage when our residents do not have access to the best communications tools and latest technology available elsewhere."

Google's new service, still being tested and not available to everyone, provides users with ways to manage telephone calls, including free long-distance service.

Google spokesman Dan Martin said Google's free service blocks numbers because some rural telephone exchanges charge exorbitant fees to connect long-distance calls to specific numbers. However, he added, the aim is only to block calls to some numbers, not all numbers in an area. A test to three Detroit Lakes numbers was representative of what is happening. When Google Voice was used to call U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson's campaign office, it would not connect. The same happened when the office's fax machine was called.

However, a Google Voice call to the Detroit Lakes Newspapers went through without a hitch.

Google attorney Richard Witt wrote in a recent blog that some rural phone numbers are connected to "adult sex chat lines and 'free' conference calling centers to drive high volumes of traffic," a practice for which local phone companies may charge higher fees. Those are the numbers Google says it wants to block.

However, President Randy Young of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance, said only one company in the state has been accused of that so-called "traffic pumping," and that has not been proven.

Telephone companies are required to put through all calls to any U.S. number, AT&T's Tom Hopkins said. Martin, however, countered that Google Voice is not a traditional telephone service provider because it requires existing home, business or mobile telephones; that means, he added, Google Voice does not fall under rules requiring service to all numbers.

AT&T discovered the Google situation when it began investigating "a pattern of call blocking that was primarily in rural areas," Hopkins said.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission briefly discussed the issue Wednesday, but decided it had no authority to take action.

While Cramer said the PSC has received no complaints, he said there appears to be a reason to check into the AT&T accusations.

"There is some hypocrisy there," Cramer said of Google, which has an official policy of treating all Internet users the same.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.