Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Carriers That Can Say No

Recently several press accounts reported that AT&T will allow iPhone subscribers to access Skype’s Voice Over the Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) telephone service via wi-fi, but not using the AT&T wireless network. See, e.g., http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2009-04-01-att-skype-iphone_N.htm. Unlike some carriers that disable wi-fi access via cellphones, AT&T could not block Apple’s interest in making handsets operate more like wireless computers. But the financial stakes were too high for AT&T to allow its subscribers to substitute cheap Skype international long distance minutes for quite expensive and quite lucrative AT&T minutes.

Apparently few seem troubled by AT&T’s unilateral decision about what subscribers can and cannot do with their handsets. (But see Skype’s concern: http://digg.com/d1ntP3) So we a carrier that can say no to subscribers when a proposed use threatened revenues despite no credible evidence that such use would cause technical harm to the AT&T network. Perhaps AT&T can base the restriction on contract law and the carrier’s need to recoup the cost of its subsidy for below cost access to the iPhone. However, AT&T retains the restriction even for iPhone subscribers after their two year service term and for subscribers who do not trigger a subsidy in the first place.

The FCC’s passive acceptance of AT&T’s blanket freedom to impose a walled garden access to telephone services, contrasts with what the Commission did when a wireline telephone company blocked DSL access to Skype. Why should this be? If a wire-based telephone company ostensibly provides an information service when provisioning DSL access to the Internet, arguably the FCC has no jurisdiction to mandate interconnection with Skype, or to impose a monetary forfeiture. Yet that is exactly what the Commission did when a rural North Carolina telephone company (Madison River) blocked access to Skype. Now the FCC does nothing when a wireless telephone company, ostensibly providing a similar information service, broadband Internet access, block subscribers from using the carrier’s network.

Can anyone make legal or public policy sense out of this inconsistency?

No comments: