Apple, AT&T answer FCC inquiry about rejection of Google Voice

We reported here on the FCC’s requests to Apple and AT&T, the iPhone maker and service provider, asking why Apple had rejected an iPhone App called Google Voice. This provides access to a range of advanced voice features free of charge, in some instances bypassing services that AT&T charges for. The FCC also wanted to hear Google’s side of the story.

The answers came in several days ago, and we have been mulling them over ever since. (Okay, we did some of our mulling at the beach.)

Apple has not actually rejected Google Voice, it says. But neither has it accepted Google Voice. Rather, Apple continues to study the application.

Over 95% of applications are approved within 14 days of submission, so this one must fall in the other five percent. Most non-approvals occur because the program crashes or fails to function properly, according to Apple, but somehow we doubt Google submitted buggy code. Other submissions are rejected for sexual or violent content, also not a factor here. Apple’s problem with Google Voice, rather, is that the application “appears to alter the iPhone’s distinctive user experience” by, for example, handling voice mail and contact lists differently.

While it makes up its mind, Apple generously invites Google to put the application on other, non-iPhone platforms “and let consumers make their choices.” Apple apparently misses the irony. If it truly favored consumer freedom, it would let customers include Google Voice in their choice of user experiences on the iPhone.

AT&T, for its part, claims no involvement in Apple’s decision (or failure to make one) regarding Google Voice. But AT&T is equally irony-challenged. Much of its response (a) touts the benefits of wireless competition, while (b) defending AT&T’s arguably anticompetitive policy of blocking VoIP services on its broadband network. The response is surprisingly frank about the rationale. VoIP users run up fewer minutes of voice service. AT&T needs the revenues from voice minutes to pay back the subsidy that lets consumers buy the iPhone at an artificially low price, which in turn has attracted many new customers to AT&T’s network (and billings for voice minutes).

Here’s an idea: a wireless network that offers its users maximum choice, and charges only for services actually selected and delivered. No limitations on handset applications; no handset “subsidies” recovered through excessive monthly charges. The wired phone system once had carrier-imposed equipment subsidies and service restrictions. Their removal by the FCC triggered the current telecommunications revolution and helped to produce the Internet. Maybe it’s time to try the same approach for wireless services as well.

Google’s response to the FCC on Google Voice might be interesting and helpful, but we will never know. Except for a glowing account of the advantages of Google Voice and Android, a Google-supported operating system for wireless phones, public copies of the response are heavily redacted, especially as to communications between Google and Apple about getting Google Voice approved. Again, the irony is hard to miss. Google has the legal right to redact information that it thinks might unfairly help its competitors. But as a company that has long championed openness on the Internet, it might have been more open with information that affects not only Google and Apple, but all of us interested in making the best use of communications resources.