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AT&T, Apple and VoIP on the iPhone

The phone OEMs are customer-driven, and I mean that in a bad way. They view service providers rather than consumers as their customers, and therefore have historically tended to be relatively uninterested in ease of use or performance, concentrating on packing in long checklists of features, many of which went unused by baffled consumers. Nokia seemed to have factions that were more user-oriented, but it took the chutzpah of Steve Jobs to really change the game.

A recent FCC inquiry has provoked a fascinating letter from AT&T on the background of the iPhone and AT&T’s relationship with Apple, including Voice over IP on the iPhone. On the topic of VoIP, the letter says that AT&T bound Apple to not create a VoIP capability for the iPhone, but Apple did not commit to prevent third parties from doing so. AT&T says that it never had any objection to iPhone VoIP applications that run over Wi-Fi, and that it is currently reconsidering its opposition to VoIP applications that run over the 3G data connection. Since the argument that AT&T presents in the letter in favor of restrictions on VoIP is weak, such a reconsideration seems in order.

The argument goes as follows: the explosion of the mobile Internet led by the iPhone was catalyzed by cheap iPhones. iPhones are cheap because of massive subsidies. The subsidies are paid for by the voice services. Therefore, AT&T is justified in protecting its voice service revenues because the subsidies they allow had such a great result: the flourishing of the mobile Internet. The reason this argument is weak is that voice service revenues are not the only way to recoup subsidies. AT&T has discovered that it can charge for the mobile Internet directly, and recoup its subsidies that way. It will not sell a subsidized iPhone without an unlimited data plan, and it increased the price of that mandatory plan by 50% last year. Even with this price increase iPhone sales continued to burgeon. In other words, AT&T may be able to recoup lost voice revenues by charging more for its data services.

This is exactly what the “dumb pipes” crowd has been advocating for over a decade now: connectivity providers should charge a realistic price for connectivity, and not try to subsidize it with unrealistic charges for other services.

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