AT&T Can Now Offer WiFi Calling, Thanks to FCC Waiver

The waiver lets AT&T offer WiFi calling to its customers while it finds a workable alternative to required TTY services for the deaf.

AT&T WiFi calling

AT&T is planning to soon begin offering WiFi calling to its mobile customers, now that the company has received a waiver from the FCC for rules that require accommodations for hearing-impaired customers who rely on TTY services.

The waiver, which was issued Oct. 6, was required because teletypewriter (TTY) services don't operate properly over WiFi networks. TTY services under FCC rules must be provided for telecommunications networks.

Under the waiver, the Federal Communications Commission will give AT&T more time, until Dec. 31, 2017, to comply with its TTY service requirements for the deaf, according to the agency. In the meantime, AT&T will use another technology, real-time text (RTT), until progress is made with TTY over WiFi.

Yet while AT&T has now received the needed waiver so it can soon deliver WiFi services for its mobile phone users, Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs told eWEEK that the FCC's response has been lacking from the start.

In an Oct. 1 letter to the FCC, Cicconi complained that while his company has been following the FCC's rules, that two competitors—T-Mobile and Sprint—are already offering WiFi calling without having filed waivers for the TTY requirements and that the agency is doing nothing to stop them.

"T-Mobile has asserted in their only real comment on the issue that they are in compliance with the FCC rules but I think that everybody knows that TTY doesn't work reliably with WiFi calling," Cicconi said. Instead, T-Mobile and Sprint are ignoring the agency's rules and getting away with it, he said.

AT&T is also angry about the amount of time it took the FCC to rule on its waiver request, which ultimately put the company behind its competitors in the marketplace in offering the services, said Cicconi. "Meanwhile they are continuing to operate without a waiver and the FCC continues to look the other way. It's another example of a tendency of that agency to show favoritism to other companies. It should not have taken my sending that letter to the FCC to get [our] waiver out of there."

Had AT&T been able to get its waiver earlier, it had planned to have its mobile WiFi services operating by Sept. 25 in time for Apple's latest iPhone 6s models and for the latest iOS 9 update, said Cicconi. AT&T filed an application for the waiver in June, but the agency "sat on it for 6 weeks," he charged.

Now the company is working to get its WiFi services underway, but there is no estimated date for when that will happen, he said.

In an email to eWEEK in response to an inquiry about T-Mobile and Sprint offering WiFi services without a waiver, an FCC spokesman said "we have reached no conclusion about that."

"Given the limitations of TTY technology in a wireless IP network as enumerated in the record of this proceeding, the extent to which such providers are in compliance with our TTY obligations remains unclear," the FCC said in its waiver for AT&T. "It would not be appropriate to grant a waiver to such entities without receiving further explanation from such entities about their current and future plans for meeting the accessibility needs of people with communications disabilities in an IP wireless environment."

Sprint has been offering WiFi calling services to many of its Android customers since February 2014, according to an earlier eWEEK story. In April, iPhone users finally got the capabilities, as long as they were using more recent iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s smartphones. The services give users capabilities to make calls over WiFi when normal cellular connections are weak or not possible.

T-Mobile launched its WiFi Calling technology in June 2007, and has been expanding it over time, according to a previous eWEEK report. In September 2014, T-Mobile unveiled home "cellspot" routers that allow customers to make WiFi calls in their homes or businesses, essentially turning the WiFi connection into a cellular tower.