FCC probes Apple’s rejection of Google Voice for iPhone

FCC probes Apple’s rejection of Google Voice for iPhone

Talked to Mercury News about FCC’s decision to look into the Apple app rejection of GVoice

FCC probes Apple’s rejection of Google Voice for iPhone

By Troy Wolverton and John Boudreau

Mercury News

Posted: 07/31/2009 07:37:55 PM PDT

Signaling heightened scrutiny of the wireless industry, the Federal Communications Commission said Friday it was investigating why Apple rejected the Google Voice application for the iPhone.

The FCC sent letters to AT&T, Apple and Google asking for information about the decision and, more broadly, about how Apple runs its applications store.

The informal inquiry comes as part of a broader look by the agency into competition in the wireless industry. Earlier this year, prompted by Congress, the FCC started investigating the exclusivity agreements that tie particular handsets to specific carriers, such as the one that binds the iPhone to AT&T.

“Recent news reports raise questions about practices in the mobile marketplace. The (FCC’s) inquiry to these companies about this matter reflects (its) proactive approach to getting the facts and data necessary to make the best policy decisions,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.

The inquiry focuses on voice over Internet (VOIP) applications on wireless phones. It seeks information on how Apple has treated other VOIP programs submitted to its application store and whether AT&T has permitted the use of Google Voice on phones other than the iPhone. The agency also wants to know what role, if any, AT&T played in Apple’s decision to reject Google Voice for the iPhone and remove the other applications.

But the inquiry goes far beyond just that issue, seeking information from Apple and AT&T about what other applications Apple has rejected and why.

A Google representative acknowledged that Apple had rejected its Voice application for the iPhone and said Google would respond to the FCC’s inquiry, but didn’t comment on concerns raised by the agency.

An Apple representative declined to comment on the inquiry.

AT&T points at Apple

AT&T spokesman John Britton said the cell phone service provider is not involved in approving applications for the iPhone. “Apple manages the application store,” he said.

But Britton declined to say whether AT&T sets guidelines for Apple about what programs are or are not acceptable on its network. There are indications that it does.

In May, Apple blocked Sling Media from releasing an application that would have allowed iPhone users to watch television programs transmitted from a Slingbox over AT&T’s network. Instead, the application was limited to transmitting those television signals over Wi-Fi networks.

In explaining the decision, an AT&T representative said at the time that the company’s terms of service — which had been updated immediately before the release of Sling’s application — forbade the use of its network to transmit television signals.

But other phones on AT&T were previously able to use the Sling application, suggesting that the company may be treating the iPhone differently. Similarly, Google Voice is available on phones other than the iPhone, including, according to reports, ones that work on AT&T’s network. But users of those other phones, which include models of the BlackBerry from Research in Motion, are able to download applications from more than one store. In contrast, iPhone users generally can get applications only through Apple’s store.

Chetan Sharma, an independent wireless industry analyst, said the FCC appears to be staking out new ground in regards to mobile phone applications.

“The FCC is looking to take a stance that if an app is available on one platform, there should be no reason it is not available on another platform,” he said. “The FCC wants to make sure consumer interests are not being harmed.”

Phenomenal success

Apple’s application store has been a phenomenal success since it launched last summer. IPhone users have now downloaded a total of 1.5 billion programs from the store and can choose from some 65,000 of them.

But developers have often been frustrated by the way Apple has run the marketplace. The company has at times taken weeks to review applications after they’ve been submitted and typically provides no explanation when it rejects them.

Developers and users both have also been frustrated by what have seemed capricious or self-interested decisions about which applications or features of applications are prohibited. For example, some programs have been allowed to stream video over AT&T’s network, while others haven’t. Meanwhile, Apple has not permitted any applications that might rival its iTunes music store or would allow iPhone users to make VOIP calls while connected to AT&T’s network.

After previously taking a largely hands-off approach, the FCC has started to take a closer look at the wireless industry. The agency is considering whether it should mandate “open access” rules for the industry that would require carriers to allow consumers to use the devices and applications of their choice.