Rumors were circulating earlier in the day, but now AT&T (s att) has made official its plans to allow Internet calling services to be used with its wireless network. That’s great news for iPhone users, at whom the news was mostly targeted, since it means we could shortly see Skype, Vonage, and Google Voice apps appear on the app store with full 3G functionality.
The official line is that AT&T is responding to customer expectation and demand considering the introduction of VOIP-capable devices like the iPhone, but in reality, with the FCC investigation into wireless industry competition hanging over its head, AT&T is probably trying to fend off government-mandated penalties in advance.
According to the Associated Press;
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, one of three Democrats on the commission, wants to impose net neutrality rules to ensure that broadband providers don’t abuse their power over Internet access to favor their own services or harm competitors. His plan has alarmed wireless carriers because it would apply these rules across different types of broadband networks, including wireless networks.
AT&T’s move is a calculated one, designed to show that the industry can successfully self-regulate without government interference. It’s kind of equivalent to the kid who wouldn’t share at recess readily giving up a toy once another kid actually leaves to tell the teacher.
Whatever the reason behind the decision to relax its rules for network use, the real winners here are iPhone users. If Skype, Google Voice, and other internet telephony apps make their way into the App Store, iPhone users will be able to avoid artificially high rates for long distance and contract minute overages by taking advantage of their existing data plans. It’s one more step towards flat data rates for all cell features, which is what should be in place anyway.
Of course, it’s still up to Apple (s aapl) to approve any VOIP apps before iPhone users can take advantage of the new rules. I’m willing to bet that Cupertino had a significant hand in convincing AT&T that this was a wise move, considering the negative press the computer company was receiving over the Google Voice debacle. Apple spokeswoman Natalie Kerris had this to say about the announcement:
“We are very happy that AT&T is now supporting VOIP applications. We will be amending our developer agreements to get VOIP apps on the App Store and in customers’ hands as soon as possible.”
The introduction of 3G VOIP will no doubt have an impact on AT&T’s network, which has seen numerous problems in the past due to the increased demand placed upon it by iPhone users. The wireless provider seems to have made improvements, as evidenced by the relatively smooth introduction of MMS earlier this month, but it remains to be seen if they can also cope with this new load.