Skype's iPhone App May Force FCC Hand on Wireless Net Neutrality

It's a wireless carrier's worst nightmare: software on devices such as Skype's VOIP app for the iPhone and other innovative mobile video technologies that allow users to bypass the carrier's own services. The FCC must decide if the agency's network neutrality rules apply to the wireless world.

Skype's introduction of its VOIP service for the iPhone may well be the tipping point for wireless network neutrality. While the right of hardwired Internet users to use the applications and services of their choice has been established by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), network neutrality for wireless networks is still an unresolved issue.
Then came Skype's March 31 announcement that it is offering a free app that adds Skype calling and instant messaging to iPhones and second generation iPod touches with a compatible headset and microphone. More than 1 million Skype apps were downloaded in the first two days after the announcement. The service only works with a Wi-Fi connection as AT&T, the exclusive network carrier for the iPhone, blocks the competing voice service on its 3G cellular network.
Telecom company Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile, which has exclusive marketing rights to the iPhone in Germany, also announced it would be blocking the app, claiming it would slow the network.
"Wireless broadband networks cannot become a safe haven for discrimination," Chris Riley, policy counsel of Free Press, said in a statement. "The Internet in your pocket should be just as free and open as the Internet in your home. The FCC must make it crystal clear that a closed Internet will not be tolerated on any platform."
Free Press wrote the FCC April 3 complaining wireless carriers are unfairly blocking lawful applications and services. Free Press and Public Knowledge filed the original complaint leading to the FCC's 2008 landmark decision that Comcast was violating the agency's network neutrality provisions when it throttled BitTorrent traffic.
In August 2005, the FCC declared that consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice, run applications and services of their choice and plug in and run legal devices of their choice. The FCC also said consumers have a right to competition among network providers, application and service providers and content providers.
"As more and more consumers begin to access the Internet wirelessly, it is critical that the FCC clarifies that online consumer protections that prohibit blocking are the same regardless of how we access the Web," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press.
Wireless carriers remain adamant that their policies are legal. In a USA Today article last week, AT&T said it expects device vendors to block consumers' access to Skype on its 3G network. AT&T is also concerned about other wireless services that may compete with the carrier, tinkering with its wireless terms of service to prohibit "customer initiated redirection of television or other video or audio signals via any technology from a fixed location to a mobile device."
T-Mobile is reportedly restricting the availability of tethering applications -- services that allow consumers to use their cell phones to connect their computers to the Internet -- within Google's Android Marketplace. And most major wireless companies have terms of service that prohibit the use of certain applications and services.
"In some cases, these appear to be outright restrictions on applications, services or devices imposed by the carrier," Free Press said in its letter to the FCC. "In other cases, there appears to be a business relationship between carriers and equipment vendors designed to cripple applications or hinder consumer choice for anti-competitive purposes."
The issue of wireless network neutrality is likely to be a central theme when the FCC begins April 8 to seek comment on the agency's development of a national broadband plan.