Apple, AT& T Questioned About Google Voice Application

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009; 10:09 PM

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday launched inquiries of Apple and AT&T for denying iPhone users access to Google's voice application, another sign of the administration's heightened scrutiny of competition in the high-tech and telecommunications sectors.

In letters to Apple and AT&T, the FCC asked the companies to explain why Google's voice application was rejected from the cell phone and removed from Apple's iPhone applications store. The agency also asked AT&T, the exclusive service provider for the iPhone, what role it may have had in making that decision.

The FCC "has a mission to foster a competitive wireless marketplace, protect and empower consumers, and promote innovation and investment," Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement about the inquiries. "Recent news reports raise questions about practices in the mobile marketplace."

The letters, which are not formal investigations, come as the agency conducts separate reviews of the overall competitiveness of the wireless industry. The FCC is looking into the exclusive partnerships between carriers and cellphone makers, such as the relationship between Sprint Nextel and Palm, for example.

Consumer groups and smaller carriers have complained that such agreements limit choices for consumers and stifle competition because smaller operators aren't able to strike deals for the latest and fastest phones. The agency is also reviewing rules for how prices are set for cellphone service providers that lease landline networks from telecom carriers and for roaming deals between carriers. Some regional carriers say the national carriers only agree to deals that are too expensive or offer too little coverage.

Apple declined to comment on the letters. AT&T could not be reached immediately for comment. Google said it submitted its voice application to the Apple App store six weeks ago but Apple did not approve it. But the search giant said it would "continue to work to bring our services to iPhone users, for example by taking advantage of advances in mobile browsers."

Last year, popular Internet voice operator Skype filed a petition for the agency to adopt rules that would allow all applications such as theirs to run on any carrier's network.

The largest carriers, Verizon Wireless and AT&T have argued that exclusive handset deals are what differentiate their services. Verizon has agreed to shorten the length of its exclusive deals with handset makers. They also say that allowing any application to run on their networks could degrade service quality.

AT&T has said that decisions on the applications permitted to run on the iPhone are made by Apple. But public interest groups have pushed for the two companies to better explain their relationship and why Apple would decide to block Internet-based voice applications like Google Voice and Skype, which compete directly with AT&T's wireless voice service.

James D. Schlichting, head of the FCC's wireless bureau, asked the companies in the letter: "Did Apple act alone, or in consultation with AT&T, in deciding to reject the Google Voice application and related applications? If the latter, please describe the communications between Apple and AT&T in connection with the decision to reject Google Voice."

The FCC also asked Google to explain how its voice application would operate on the iPhone and if Apple explained why it rejected it. All three companies were asked to reply to the questions in the letters by Fri, Aug. 21.

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