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Tuesday, May 12, 2009, 05:30 pm PT (08:30 pm ET)

AT&T pins neutered SlingPlayer on iPhone not being a phone

In a curiously worded statement, AT&T has claimed it prevented the iPhone version of SlingPlayer from using 3G because it would chew too much data — and because the iPhone is, oddly, not considered a phone.

The short message justifies the decision to allow Sling Media's remote streaming only without 3G use by first noting that a Slingbox consumes a large amount of bandwidth on AT&T's cellular towers and could "prevent other customers from using the network."

However, it's here that the wireless provider's argument takes an unusual turn. As mentioned by Engadget, AT&T specifically cites its terms of service — which have flip-flopped over the past several weeks — as preventing users from re-routing a TV signal through the 3G connection to a personal computer. But rather than add smartphones to the clause, the company tries to fit the iPhone into this category by claiming that it's too powerful to be a regular smartphone.

"Applications like this, which redirect a TV signal to a personal computer, are specifically prohibited under our terms of service," AT&T claims. "We consider smartphones like the iPhone to be personal computers in that they have the same hardware and software attributes as PCs."

Instead, the carrier says, iPhone owners should be content to stream Slingbox video when away from home through the free Wi-Fi access they have at certain public locations, such as Starbucks coffee shops. Web video streams are also allowed.

The stance has already come under fire as evidence of a double standard at AT&T. Where the iPhone app is restricted to Wi-Fi, the BlackBerry Bold and several Windows Mobile phones are explicitly allowed to run their respective versions of SlingPlayer on the same 3G network in a compatibility list Sling maintains on its own. Some phones offered by AT&T outside of this list also run SlingPlayer and, again, aren't given the same restrictions.

Additionally, numerous iPhone apps like Joost or Ustream permit long, contiinuous video streams with bandwidth requirements not unlike those of SlingPlayer.

As such, many already view the seemingly arbitrary treatment of the iPhone as more a reflection of AT&T's ability to support an especially popular device with streaming video on its network than any actual concerns about the iPhone being too powerful to be counted among normal smartphones. The Dallas-based firm has been sued multiple times for allegedly overselling its iPhone 3G speeds and is frequently the subject of criticism in New York City and San Francisco, where the dense concentrations of iPhone users have in many cases made the 3G network all but unusable, dropping calls or reverting to 2G even in strong coverage.

For its part, AT&T has lately been promising significant upgrades to its 3G and is believed to be preparing a major, comprehensive speed upgrade on Apple's behest for May 31st — just over a week before WWDC and before a new generation of iPhone is likely to push 3G usage even higher.