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iPhone VoIP tussle heats up

Skype vs Deutsche Telekom, AT&T

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Skype and its allies are fighting back against telcos that disallow or cripple its voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) service.

At issue is Deutsche Telekom's edict that customers who use Skype's free VoIP service on their iPhone will have their internet access summarily severed and AT&T's refusal to allow Skype to work on its Edge and 3G networks.

On Wednesday, Deutsche Telekom's mobile arm, T-Mobile Germany, decreed that subscribers who used its service to make VoIP calls using Skype for the iPhone (iTunes link) could have their service severed.

In an article in Thursday's USA Today, AT&T exec Jim Cicconi said that his company had "every right" to not promote the services of a wireless rival - meaning Skype.

Skype and its allies, however, aren't backing down.

On Friday, Reuters reports, the Voice on the Net coalition Europe - which includes includes Microsoft, Google, and Intel, among others - asked European policymakers to support VoIP access by mobile phones on any and all networks.

Also on Friday, free-internet advocate Free Press wrote a letter to the US Federal Communications Commission asking it to protect comsumers' rights to "access any online content and services on any device of their choosing."

Such as Skype.

The Voice on the Net coalition argues that "Blocking of voice applications on mobile devices, such as the announcement of T-Mobile to block Skype on iPhones in Germany, is highly detrimental for consumer welfare in Europe."

Deutsche Telekom sees it differently. Spokesman Alexander von Schmettow told the Associated Press that VoIP access is prohibited by its T-Mobile contracts, and has been since 2007.

AT&T's Cicconi was more direct: "Skype is a competitor just like Verizon or Sprint or T-Mobile," adding that Skype "has no obligation to market AT&T services. Why should the reverse be true?"

Herr von Schmettow also said that he believes that VoIP will slow down the T-Mobile network.

Skype’s general counsel Robert Miller blogs differently. First noting that Skype is the number-one download from Germany's iPhone App Store, he goes on to state that von Schmettow's contention "is baseless. Skype works perfectly well on iPhone, as hundreds of thousands of people globally can already readily attest."

Unfortunately for those hundreds of thousands of people who happen to be Europeans whose ISPs forbid VoIP, Miller notes that: "German or EU regulation does not forbid such blatantly unfair practices, and the new EU legislation for telecoms which the European Parliament and European governments are supposed to adopt later this month will not help either, it seems from the latest texts being considered in Brussels: it may even make things worse, by legitimizing restrictions put in place by operators to users' Internet access, as long as they inform consumers."

Of course, telecos are big fans of VoIP restrictions. But as Seth Weintraub of Computerworld points out, "If I can have effective VoIP which includes SMS messages and visual voicemail, free long distance for $60/year, why am I being charged $60/month (plus $30/month extra for data) from AT&T for less than that?"

Why indeed? Because they can. As Lily Tomlin put it in her classic comedy routine, "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the Phone Company."

But Ms. Tomlin's Ernestine the Operator uttered those classic lines over 30 years ago, well before VoIP was even a gleam in Jeff Pulver's eye. Today, telecoms such as Deutsche Telekom and AT&T are fighting a rear-guard action. ®

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