Some Unsolicited Advice for AT&T re Google Voice

By Rob Frieden
Rob Frieden

The FCC has posed a number of provocative questions to AT&T regarding the fact that iPhone subscribers cannot download and use the Google Voice application (see related article in the New York Times). AT&T should stifle every motivation to play cute or clever with the FCC. Apple adopted such a strategy when it suggested to the Library of Congress and others that it would be curtains for the free world if iPhone owners could hack, jailbreak, tether, and otherwise use their handsets without fear of violating the prohibition on circumventing copyright laws contained in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (see related article in Wired). Apparently the ability to treat an iPhone as the equivalent to a mobile computer risks opening the AT&T network to terroristic damage.

AT&T already has implied that it has nothing to do with applications Apple decides to make available, so one could infer that AT&T had nothing to do with the Google Voice decision. Yeah, right. AT&T stands to lose millions of dollars if captive subscribers can avoid paying dollars or tens of cents for calls that Google and Skype otherwise would charge pennies.

This "pass the buck" strategy will come to haunt AT&T if the FCC does its job. By claiming that it has no involvement in content and software decisions AT&T may back itself squarely into wireless common carriage, a regulatory classification that should apply to the company in its capacity as a wireless telephone company, but which typically gets ignored. In its capacity as a provider of wireless radio transmission capacity, AT&T operates as a provider of a regulated telecommunications service.

AT&T usually wants to emphasize its information processing and content access function that deflects its regulated, common carrier status and also positions the company to be more than the purveyor of a commodity: airtime.

When AT&T claims that it operates merely as a neutral conduit, it confers upon Apple the information processing functions leaving AT&T to offer nothing more than the commodity of transmission time.

By Rob Frieden, Pioneers Chair and Professor of Telecommunications and Law. Visit the blog maintained by Rob Frieden here.

Related topics: Brand Protection, Mobile Internet, Telecom, Wireless


Rob, you're making a fundamental mistake George Ou  –  Aug 04, 2009 6:00 PM PDT

Google Voice is not a VoIP application.  Google Voice is just a call setup application that dials your phone and the phone you want to call from your application.  This has nothing to do with AT&T;and they've stated so.

I think the fact that Schmit has resigned from the board of Apple and the official explanation explains everything here.  Google is now a competitor for applications and operating systems and phones (Android).  The last thing that Apple wants is iPhone users to get comfortable with Google applications because that takes eyes away from Apple applications and might eventually lead to lost revenue and market share.

As for Skype, this is a technical problem with unscheduled wireless IP data being completely unscalable for mobile networks.  It's not just the excessive IP packet overhead, the random collisions cause huge problems.  3G networks are not built for VoIP transmission and while you can do it for a few users (with poor latency) on a cell tower, it’s brutally inefficient.  In my network management report, I talk about how you can put a few hundred scheduled calls on a 5MHz band of frequency but only a dozen unscheduled calls on 20 MHz of frequency.

Skype for example has a deal in Europe where users have to use up cellular minutes to use Skype.  Yet Skype specially reengineered their application to use circuit switching technology so that the actual voice transport uses traditional circuit switching cellular technology and only the “presence” and signaling portion of Skype uses the IP network.  I pushed Libertelli on this in a public debate in Canada when I pointed out that Skype chose to do this.  Libertelli snapped back that they didn't “choose” it but that the technology forced them to do it this way, which just goes to prove my point that you can't really use Skype on a 3G network for technical reasons.