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AT&T, Apple and VoIP: Getting To Ubiquitous Open Networks

I’ve not paid a lot of attention to the fury over Apple, AT&T and GoogleVoice, but this AT&T “about face” from FreePress made me sit up and take notice:

AT&T acknowledged that it plays a role in authorizing VoIP applications. The AT&T response states: “AT&T and Apple agreed that Apple would not take affirmative steps to enable an iPhone to use AT&T’s wireless service (including 2G, 3G and Wi-Fi) to make VoIP calls without first obtaining AT&T’s consent.”

Apple confirmed this in their response, stating: “There is a provision in Apple’s agreement with AT&T that obligates Apple not to include functionality in any Apple phone that enables a customer to use AT&T’s cellular network service to originate or terminate a VoIP session without obtaining AT&T’s permission.”

What does this mean?

It suggests that cellular data networks are more like traditional telephone networks than we might want to acknowledge or imagine. What do I mean by this? I mean that they are physically constrained; to put this in Chris Anderson-speak, scarcity is an issue.

This is nothing new. We know that cellular networks are designed to support average traffic; they don’t suffer peaks well. I recall an earthquake in Seattle in the 1990s; I got one call out on my cellphone, then “circuits busy.” Katrina victims learned this lesson, too.

Of course, wifi networks are also subject to over-subscription. Ask folks who have attended a tech conference to raise their hands if they’ve ever had wifi issues at an event or a hotel.

But if cellular devices are going to be the way most people connect to the internet, and that’s looking to become a certainty (at least part of the time), then we must do something to make the data network more robust. [Those of us using AT&T with our iPhones need no convincing of this assertion.]

Cellular data service is already far more expensive in the U.S. than in Europe. And for what – where’s the money going? It doesn’t seem to be into bigger data pipes. Moreover, efforts to create free city-wide wifi networks seem to have fallen by the wayside:

Rex Sorgatz on citywide wifi
Rex Sorgatz on citywide wifi

What I didn’t realize, until I read this FreePress article, is that I have to be online to use Skype on my iPhone. I had installed, but not yet used, Skype. So I tested it:
iphone_skype_offline-2

OK. AT&T says no VoIP over our data network. End of story. Why? AT&T doesn’t want us using an alternative to their voice network when we are actually using our phone to talk. If you don’t have friends living abroad, you might be scratching your head, wondering why anyone would want to use Skype on their cellphone, given the pretty generous voice plans.

If you’re going to make non-domestic calls regularly and pay $3.99 per month for AT&T World Connect, then you’ll pay 19-cents a minute to call Canada, 25-cents to call the Bahamas or 37-cents a minute to call a cellphone in Chile. Brace yourself: it’s $1.60 landline/$1.70 cellphone – per minute – to call Iraq. (No wonder so many soldiers suggested that their families contact them via Facebook IM.) Didn’t pay that $3.99 a month? The Iraq call just jumped to $2.69/$2.79 per minute. New Zealand: 8-cents landline/34-cents cellphone per minute with AT&T World Connect versus $3.49/$3.75 without.

See why people want to use Skype?

So how are we going to create a ubiquitous network? We could begin by making it drop-dead easy to turn our at-home wifi networks into open ones when we aren’t using them, automagically turning that feature off when we are back home and online … all the while simultaneously protecting our networked computers from malicious attack. Maybe there’s an easy way to do this now? If so, give me a shout and tell me how.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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