Commerce Dept.: PUC ruling means VoIP providers must follow Minn. law

Minnesota's commerce commissioner said a Friday Public Utilities Commission ruling could help sustain phone services for disabled and low income customers.

The PUC voted 5-0 in favor of extending Minnesota's telephone regulations to companies that provide services through "fixed interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol," or VoIP, which uses traditional land lines to route digitized voice packets. The commission is expected to issue a written order within a couple of weeks.

"It's basically saying that these services are telecommunications services and are therefore regulated under Minnesota's laws," Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said. The PUC vote comes after a Commerce Department investigation of a company that, it said, tried to escape paying required fees.

In March 2013, Charter Fiberlink Companies transferred 100,000 Minnesota customers to "an affiliate, Charter Advanced Services Companies, which provided VoIP phone service that was not certified" by the PUC, the Commerce Department said.

MPR News is Member Supported

What does that mean? The news, analysis and community conversation found here is funded by donations from individuals. Make a gift of any amount today to support this resource for everyone.

The state requires phone companies to collect fees to support the Telecommunications Access Minnesota program, which supplies equipment and supports the Minnesota Relay Service for hearing-impaired and blind consumers. Rothman said Charter failed to collect those fees. He said the company also failed to include a credit on the bills of low income consumers to help them pay for telephone service.

"Charter's unilateral refusal to support these universal access programs meant that customers of its competitors had to make up for the lost revenue to these programs," a statement from the Commerce Department said.

Charter said the state lacks jurisdiction in matter.

In a letter to the PUC last October, St. Paul attorney Anthony Mendoza wrote that while the Federal Communications Commission "has not yet determined whether interconnected VoIP services will be classified as information services or telecommunications services, the FCC has clearly stated, through its words and actions, that it alone will determine which regulations apply to interconnected VoIP providers."

Rothman said the PUC's action could help preserve the landline system that still serves around 2 million Minnesotans who depend on it.

"We want to make sure that these systems are maintained for our public and for our consumers and in particular to protect them so that they have that universal access," Rothman said.