Last week the FCC started an inquiry into why Apple rejected the new Google Voice app from its iPhone app store, sending letters to both companies and AT&T, the exclusive cell carrier of the iPhone in the US. Google Voice is a service that allows a user to receive all of her calls and text messages at a single number, and then have them routed intelligently to wherever she is. Speculation abounds that Apple rejected the app because it poses a threat to AT&T’s voice network, where users pay for a certain number of minutes or text messages, because it routes calls over the data network, where users pay a flat rate for unlimited usage.
A screen shot of an online chat with an Apple rep purports to show that Apple blames AT&T for the Google Voice block. For its part AT&T says it “does not manage or approve applications for the App Store.”
It’s a tangled web at the moment, but still one thing is clear: while Blackberry and Android phone users can get Google Voice, iPhone users are blocked.
But it’s not just about Google Voice, though this instance appears to have come at the right time, with a newly confirmed and tech-savvy FCC Chairman, along with a full slate of commissioners for the first time since 2008. There are other apps you can’t get in the iPhone store, and those that are crippled–like Skype and the Sling Player–presumably to protect AT&T’s cellular voice and cable TV services from competition.
While it’s true one can still go shopping for a different phone or a different carrier to avoid some of these restrictions, it’s also true that not every carrier or phone is available everywhere. There are places where you can’t get an iPhone, and places where you can only get a smartphone by using AT&T, Verizon or Sprint. Increasingly it’s looking like the worst fears of Net Neutrality advocates have come to mobile devices first.
Veteran FCC watchers are actually amazed at how fast Chairman Genachowski responded to the Google Voice iPhone story, since the agency isn’t known for quick action. Such responsiveness may be an indicator as to how critical the potential threat is to free and open communications, given the likelihood that soon more people will access the ‘net via a mobile device than with a PC.
I want to know what you think: should the FCC or Congress step in to regulate mobile cellular and broadband networks and devices? Should the government act to limit handset exclusivity and curtail the power of Apple and AT&T to reject applications that might promote competition?
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