AT&T, Apple backpedal on iPhone VoIP apps

Move means Apple will presumably approve Google Voice for App Store

AT&T reversed course today, announcing that it would "take the steps necessary" so iPhone owners could run voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications, presumably including Google Voice and Skype.

Apple, meanwhile, said it will bring VoIP applications to its App Store "as soon as possible."

The two companies, partners in the U.S. iPhone market, had faced an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) into Apple's rejection of Google Voice for the iPhone and the removal of similar software from the App Store.

In a statement e-mailed to Computerworld Tuesday afternoon, AT&T explained its change of heart. "AT&T ... has taken the steps necessary so that Apple can enable VoIP applications on iPhone to run on AT&T's wireless network," a company spokeswoman said. "AT&T this afternoon informed Apple Inc. and the FCC of its decision."

The company did not reference its reply to the FCC in its statement today, but last month in a letter to the agency , it denied that it had had any part in the rejection of Google Voice. It did admit that it "has had general discussions with Apple about optimizing the technical criteria that Apple uses to evaluate iPhone applications in order to minimize congestion on our wireless network."

Apple has consistently claimed that it did not actually reject Google Voice, saying instead that it was "pondering" the submission. Google, however, said the opposite in its official response to the FCC, when it said Apple denied its application access to the App Store on July 7.

Today, Apple welcomed AT&T's decision, but declined to say whether, or when, it would approve Google Voice for the App Store.

"Apple is very happy that AT&T is now supporting voice-over-Internet applications," a company spokeswoman said Tuesday after AT&T's announcement. "We will be amending our developer agreements, and will get voice applications onto the App Store and in customer hands as soon as possible."

Previously, both Apple and AT&T had admitted that their contractual agreement barred VoIP applications from reaching the App Store unless AT&T agrees.

Another application that will likely be affected by AT&T's and Apple's new-found favor for VoIP is Skype, which has been accepted for the App Store, but only in a crippled form that requires a Wi-Fi hotspot and doesn't run on AT&T's data network. Skype's use of Wi-Fi only prompted one advocacy group to urge the FCC to look into Apple's and AT&T's VoIP practices last April.

The CEO of AT&T's mobile group argued that the decision was made because conditions had changed, not because of pressure from the FCC.

"iPhone is an innovative device that dramatically changed the game in wireless when it was introduced just two years ago," said Ralph de la Vega, AT&T Mobility's CEO, in a statement. "Today's decision was made after evaluating our customers' expectations and use of the device compared to dozens of others we offer."

AT&T has long allowed VoIP applications, including Google Voice, on other smartphones that it sells.

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