This is the question that the US FCC will need to answer according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, which describes how the agency is grappling with new phone services such as Google Voice. Strictly speaking Google probably shouldn’t be considered a carrier because you can’t use it to make calls in the absence of another service; it’s really a “call management” and voice mail platform. However, you can use the Google Voice number as your primary telephone “identity,” something that was previously in the exclusive realm of telecom carriers.
Google Talk in one sense more like a carrier than Voice, although unlike Skype, you can’t use it outside the network of other IM users.
There are a range of issues raised by Google Voice and other new phone services that the FCC and similar regulatory bodies in other countries will need to figure out. Traditional telecom and wireless carriers are heavily regulated and will start putting pressure on the FCC if these newer services, which often circumvent them, are not subject to similar rules and guidelines. For example, according to the WSJ article:
One issue for the FCC: Google reserves the right to restrict calls to certain telephone numbers, such as adult chat lines or free conference-call centers, that have steep access charges.
Traditional phone companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. aren’t allowed to block those kinds of calls. Those companies could cry foul if newer phone services like Google Voice aren’t given the same treatment.
Several years ago, AT&T and others tried blocking calls to lines with inflated access charges. They were rebuked by the FCC, which said common-carrier phone companies can’t pick and choose the numbers they will patch through and those they will block.
Voice calls are data and more companies will get in on the business of transmitting and managing the delivery of that data across networks. The traditional carriers, who’ve invested billions in building the networks, won’t sit by and watch their fees evaporate and watch their business go third parties who piggyback on top of those networks without some sort of a fight. This is, in one sense, a version of the “net neutrality” debate applied to phone communication.