Group urges FCC to open AT&T's 3G to Skype on iPhone

Free Press advocacy group asks agency to apply Net neutrality rules to mobile networks

An advocacy group today asked the Federal Communications Commission to decide whether AT&T Inc. and Apple Inc. have broken federal rules by blocking iPhone owners from using the recently released Skype voice-over-IP (VoIP) service on AT&T's 3G wireless network.

"If you look at the consumer rights [spelled out] in the FCC's Internet Policy Statement, there is a chance that they might be violation by this practice," said Chris Riley, the policy counsel at Free Press, a Washington-based media reform group.

Riley today sent a letter to the FCC (download PDF) asking the agency to confirm that wireless networks must toe the line of the Internet Policy Statement, a set of rules adopted by the FCC in 2005 that guarantees consumers the right to access any online content on any device.

The group's letter cited the release Tuesday of Skype for Apple's iPhone as an example for the need to clarify the rules. Skype, which its maker said yesterday had been downloaded more than 1 million times since Tuesday, allows VoIP calls only via a wireless connection on the iPhone. However, iPhone users can't make VoIP calls on the carrier's own data network.

In the U.S., AT&T is the exclusive carrier for the iPhone.

AT&T claimed that it doesn't block VoIP traffic on its 3G network. "We do not prohibit VoIP," said company spokesman Mark Siegel. "But we expect our vendors not to facilitate the services of our competitors. We shouldn't have the obligation to promote our competitors."

And that, countered Riley, should raise red flags at the FCC. "If there is an agreement under which AT&T is contractually making Apple bar Skype [from its App Store], then it's blocking those calls just as much as if it were blocking VoIP on its network," Riley said.

Apple's software developer's kit bans VoIP applications that use a carrier's data network, but it allows software to make Internet phone calls when in range of a Wi-Fi network.

"We want an open Internet for everyone, and in this case, the carrier is getting involved in how the Internet is being used," Riley said. "And if AT&T is trying to block competitors, I think that that's a scary, anticompetitive move. They're trying to use their network to prevent competition."

Riley declined to gauge the chances of successfully persuading the FCC to rule that wireless networks should be held to the same rules as wire-based broadband, but he was clear on what he wanted the agency to do.

"All we want is the policy applied to all networks," he said.

Free Press led the effort last year against Comcast Corp. over its throttling of peer-to-peer traffic. In August 2008, the FCC ordered Comcast to stop interfering with the file-sharing traffic. The cable company has appealed the FCC decision to a federal appeals court.

"This [new action] is just a continuation of our Net neutrality efforts," Riley said. "It's definitely part of the ongoing battle."

Apple declined to comment on the Free Press complaint to the FCC.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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