VoIP takes net neutrality mobile

14 May 2009
00:00

It was always a matter of time before the issue of net neutrality found its way into the mobile sector. Last month it did just that, in the form of Skype\'s new mobile client for the iPhone.

Forty-eight hours and one million downloads later, Germany\'s T-Mobile and Canada\'s Rogers Wireless were appealing to regulators to block Skype on iPhones. Meanwhile, AT&T in the US allows Skype on its iPhones, but only because Skype agreed in advance to design the app so that it only works on Wi-Fi connections, not the 3G network. According to Wired\'s gadget blog Epicenter, \'That restriction was necessary to make Apple and its ISP partner AT&T happy enough to allow it into the Apple-curated App Store\'.

AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel put it more plainly in an email to Epicenter: \'We have no obligation - nor should we have - to facilitate or subsidize our competitors\' businesses.\' Which is an interesting stance given that AT&T doesn\'t block VoIP on its 3G network.

Just how much Skype competes with cellcos or anyone else in the voice business is open to debate. Admittedly, the VoIP player has the kind of numbers that make cellcos nervous. Skype (via its owner, eBay) reported $153 million in revenues in Q109 on nearly three billion minutes worth of billable Skype Out traffic - a 65% increase year-on-year. During the same quarter, Skype\'s subscriber base grew to 443 million worldwide. That means China Mobile is the only voice operator on the planet with more subs than Skype.

On the other hand, Telegeography reports that Skype only accounted for 8% of global IDD voice traffic last year. Sure, that\'s up from 6% in 2007. Still, it\'s hardly a stat filled with doom for cellco IDD revenue.


Don\'t fear the mobile VoIP

Still, that\'s not stopping some cellcos from crying foul and ask for regulatory relief. But how much sympathy they get will likely depend on the regulator\'s attitude to VoIP in general. In Bangladesh, for example, VoIP is still illegal. But regulators such as Hong Kong\'s OFTA and Singapore\'s IDA have made it clear that they regard VoIP to be an internet application and nothing more - and therefore outside of their scope.

That makes it a net neutrality issue, which is why neutrality advocates have asked the US FCC to determine if AT&T forcing Skype to cripple its app violates the net neutrality doctrine. My own take: whatever net neutrality policy a given regulator has in place should apply equally to wireline and wireless alike. Cellcos that want to get into the ISP business have to accept that as one of the hazards of the profession.

That said, mobile VoIP is hardly hazardous. It\'s not even all that new. Skype has been mobile on Pocket PC since 2006, and has since been available for download onto handsets from Nokia, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and LG. Skype even got its own mobile handset almost two years ago - and that was with Hutchison-owned 3, which has bundled Skype with its X-Series mobile internet package since the start of 2007. In March this year, 3 Hong Kong also bundled Skype with the release of the INQ \'social networking optimized\' handset, which provides one-click access to Skype service.

In fact, as I was typing this, 3 UK announced that starting May 1 it would scrap data charges and top-up fees for customers using a Skype-enabled handset on its network, and extend the Skype SIM offer to users on other mobile networks.

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