Tuesday, December 2, 2003 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

What Methinks of the Metaphysics of VoIP

Well, talk of VoIP is all the rage this week, what with the FCC conducting its VoIP Forum to consider how VoIP, or Voice Over the Internet, should be classified, regulated, thwarted, promoted, or whatever. It's VoIP week. Check out the piece in today's WSJ. And I don't mean to belittle VoIP one byte--oops, I mean bit--because it is has the potential to render even less relevant the existing legacy regulatory paradigms.

But to metaphysics. My Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines "metaphysical" at the very top of page 731 as: (1) "of or relating to the transcendent or to the reality beyond what is perceptible to the senses"; (2) "supernatural"; or (3) "highly abstract or abstruse". Now, I don't mean to imply, of course, that VoIP service itself, in its various forms, is not perceptible to the senses, or that it is supernatural or abstruse. To the contrary. In many ways that are important in thinking about whether VoIP ought to be regulated and how, it is, or is fast becoming, much like what, in the pre-Internet Age, we use to call POTS, or plain 'ol telephone service. To coin a phrase, it is as real as reaching out to touch someone.

What I mean to say about metaphysics and VoIP is this: The discussion at the FCC and before the state regulatory commissions about whether VoIP service, or various VoIP services, are "information services" or "telecommunications services" under the definitions contained in the Communications Act will surely be metaphysical in the dictionary sense of the word. In arguing for or against a particular regulatory classification, with whatever regulatory consequences may attend, there will be much talk about the various shapes for the Customer Premises Equipment used (does it look like a phone or a computer or something in-between?), about what names we call the CPE (suppose we call what looks like a phone a computer), about even the name VoIP providers give themselves (doesn't one of the leading providers advertise itself "the broadband telephone company"?), and especially about the genetic heritage or parentage of the provider (did people use to call it the "local telephone company" and did it really use to be the local phone company?).

If this discussion isn't metaphysical, then I'm not a philosopher, but just an 'ol regulatory lawyer turned think-tanker. But I do recall the decade-long war regarding the classification of "protocol conversion" --not irrelevant to VoIP service--during the '80s. Back then the operative regulatory classifications were "basic" and "enhanced" services under Computer II, and today's "telecommunications" and "information" service definitions are for all intents and purposes just the same.

What's a regulatory philosopher to do? Well, my colleague Ray Gifford is right, of course, that there is no sound rationale for regulation of VoIP by federal or state economic administrative regulators. See his December 1 post below. Methinks, however, you may need to brush up on your metaphysics, maybe, say, with Aristotle, to follow the fight in the regulatory arenas. At the same time we can all pray the regulators stifle the urge to bring VoIP into the regulatory ambit.

BTW, I promise not to use "methinks" for a long, long time. But would you believe it is the very last word on page 731 of my Webster's, so, dictionary-style, across the top of the page you find: "metaphysic-methinks". I couldn't resist!

posted by Randolph May @ 4:30 PM | General