Faster Forward: Skype brings 3G video calls to iPhone

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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 6:23 AM

The iPhone now makes a decent video phone -- even if you're away from a WiFi hot spot. Skype shipped an update to its free iPhone application Thursday that adds video-calling capability to the iPhone 4, the iPhone 3GS and the current, fourth-generation iPod touch.

And the new Skype 3.0, unlike Apple's FaceTime, works over AT&T's 3G mobile broadband.

That's not through any cooperation with the wireless carrier, Skype says.

"We've not checked with AT&T," said Neil Stevens, Skype's vice president and general manager for consumer products, in a Skype interview Wednesday. "We don't think it's our position to check in with carriers."

I tested the new app in a round of brief calls from an iPhone 4, loaned by Apple's PR department, to an iMac and vice versa, then between that iPhone and a loaner iPod touch. Every call connected in a second or two, stayed up until I ended it myself and delivered Skype's typically good audio quality. But Skype's low-resolution video stream looked lousy even over five bars of an AT&T signal, and switching to my home's faster wireless network didn't improve it.

Then again, FaceTime doesn't look that hot either.

You pay in bandwidth for the privilege of Skype 3G video calling. The iPhone's usage records showed it ate up 15.9 megabytes of data coming and going during a five-minute video call. At an average of 3.2 MB a minute, it would take little more than an hour to burn through the 200 MB monthly quota on AT&T's entry-level data plan.

Skype 3.0 needs about 600 kilobits per second of upload and download bandwidth to avoid sacrificing video quality; most 3G connections won't leave much headroom on the upload link. It also lets third-gen iPod touch models and iPads receive video calls.

Sub-VHS-grade video notwithstanding, bringing 3G video calling to the iPhone is an impressive achievement when you remember that Skype's first incarnation on Apple's smartphone only allowed voice calls over WiFi. AT&T waited another six months to say it swould open 3G access for Skype on the iPhone. (The Federal Communications Commission's just-passed net-neutrality regulatory framework would forbid that sort of blocking.)

What about the iPhone's major competitor, Google's Android operating system? While Sevens said the Luxembourg-based firm is "working hard on an Android version" with video-calling support, any U.S. release will remain subject to an exclusive deal with Verizon Wireless that limits Skype voice calling to WiFi on non-Verizon phones. (Its Verizon-specific app can only place calls over 3G, not WiFi, although the company is working to fix that gap.)

Stevens wouldn't discuss the duration of Skype's Verizon deal, but in calling the carrier "a serious partner for us," he didn't sound like that arrangement would end soon.

Other smartphone operating systems look to be on hold for Skype video calls, owing to lack of perceived demand (Research In Motion's BlackBerry and HP's webOS) or operating-system incompatibility (Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 doesn't let developers use a phone's video camera).


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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