After writing this morning’s post about VoIP and CALEA, it occurs to me that this sort of regulatory issue is probably one of the motivations behind Skype’s decision to make SkypeOut free in the United States. Skype and the FCC are heading for a collision course. Sometime in the middle of 2007, the FCC is probably going to try to force Skype to comply with CALEA. Skype will probably try to wash their hands of the matter, the way they did with E911. The FCC is unlikely to buy that, sparking a showdown.
Skype is likely to react by turning SkypeOut off (or threatening to) and blaming the FCC for the decision in hopes of creating a consumer backlash. The effectiveness of that tactic will depend on how many SkypeOut users they have. If there are enough of them, the FCC will be in the awkward situation of telling millions of Skype users that they’re no longer allowed to call their land line friends as they’d been doing for free for the previous year.
This reminds me of an excellent article in Reason back in 1999 about the fight over satellite transmission of local broadcast TV stations. Basically, satellite companies simply started transmitting the content consumers wanted in violation of the law. By the time the FCC got around to considering the issue, they had gotten so many customers that the FCC didn’t dare force them to stop.
Even if Skype isn’t able to make the FCC blink, the next year will be a fleeting opportunity to convert current landline users to IP-based telephony before going back to being a pure IP service.