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Friday, April 03, 2009, 10:00 am PT (01:00 pm ET)

FCC asked to investigate iPhone's restriction on Skype calls

An Internet advocacy group has asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether Apple and its US wireless partner AT&T are violating federal guidelines by restricting consumers from using Skype's new iPhone application to make low-cost internet calls over AT&T's network.

The request was made Friday by Free Press, a group with a long history of lobbying against cable and wireless companies seeking to place restrictions on how consumers use their services, according the Wall Street Journal.

Released on Tuesday, the Skype application (Free, App Store) quickly shot to the top of the download charts on Apple's App Store and has since been installed on more than a million of the iPhone maker's handheld devices. It lets users communicate with other mobile or PC-based Skype users free of charge or place international calls to cell phones and traditional landlines for a nominal fee of about 2.1 cents per minutes.

As part of a concession made to AT&T, Apple's terms for software approval on the App Store prohibits VoIP-based applications like Skype from utilizing networks operated by wireless carriers. AT&T, like the vast majority of its peers, worry that offering that capability would eat into their high-margin service revenues.

That means Skype's is only useful when a user's iPhone is in range of a WiFi hotspot, limiting the potential for the software to help consumers cut back on their pricey monthly service plans with wireless providers. It was reported earlier this week that Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile unit, Apple's wireless partner in Germany, was considering a restriction that would ban users from operating Skype even on its own WiFi network.

"Free Press and other consumer advocates want the FCC to affirm that so-called net neutrality protections also cover wireless networks," the Journal's report explains. "That would prevent AT&T or other operators from blocking services like Skype on their mobile networks."

Possibly working in the group's favor is the Democratic administration that's recently taken charge of the FCC, the report adds. President Barack Obama is a stalwart supporter of net neutrality, as is his choice for FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski.