In a succinct statement Tuesday, AT&T Inc. appears to have bowed to consumer and potential Federal Communications Commission pressure regarding a key feature, recently blocked, on Apple Inc. iPhone models tethered to the AT&T network:
AT&T today announced it has taken the steps necessary so that Apple can enable VoIP applications on iPhone to run on AT&T’s wireless network. Previously, VoIP applications on iPhone were enabled for Wi-Fi connectivity. For some time, AT&T has offered a variety of other wireless devices that enable VoIP applications on 3G, 2G and Wi-Fi networks. AT&T this afternoon informed Apple Inc. and the FCC of its decision.
In late summer, AT&T said it was taking a fresh look at VoIP capabilities on iPhone for use on AT&T’s 3G network, consistent with its regular review of device features and capabilities to ensure attractive options for consumers.
“iPhone is an innovative device that dramatically changed the game in wireless when it was introduced just two years ago,” said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO, AT&T Mobility & Consumer Markets. “Today’s decision was made after evaluating our customers’ expectations and use of the device compared to dozens of others we offer.”
AT&T allows customers to download or launch on their wireless devices a multitude of compatible applications directly from any lawful Internet website. Additionally, because AT&T uses GSM technology, the most pervasive and open wireless technology platform in the world, we support customers using any GSM phone that works on AT&T’s frequencies.
While the move is certainly encouraging for iPhone users who may yet see the once-blocked Google Voice application on their iPhones, it’s also seemingly a smart one for AT&T, which may have been penalized by the FCC and other regulators over the matter. When the Google Voice application was yanked from the iPhone App Store on July 27, many commentators, including my colleague and friend David Coursey of PC World’s “Business Center” Web site, said Apple was trying to protect AT&T’s cell phone service revenue. That, in turn, sparked customer protests and inquiries in Washington.
The whole to-do over VoIP is this: VoIP calls convert speech into data packets, which are sent over the Internet and retranslated into speech at the other end by a system that will also call someone’s phone. Rates, particularly for international voice calls, can be much, much cheaper than typical cell phone rates are, and while that makes consumers happy, it could, one imagines, put a dent in AT&T’s revenue stream.
Now, let the VoIP-fest begin. Google Voice isn’t back in Apple’s iPhone App Store just yet, but another voice application, iCall, is. Its makers claim you can use the program to switch live cell calls to a Wi-Fi-to-VoIP framework without losing quality, and while saving bucks on the aforementioned roaming calls. In anticipation of travel the next few weeks, including a jaunt outside the U.S., I’ve downloaded it and will give it a try, reporting the results here or in the newspaper. If you’re an iPhone user, you might wish to sample the iCall app yourself.