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Tuesday, October 06, 2009, 02:00 pm PT (05:00 pm ET)

AT&T to allow VoIP calls via its 3G network on iPhone [u]

AT&T announced Tuesday that it will allow Apple to enable voice over IP applications such as Skype to run on its 3G wireless data network [updated with official info].

AT&T said it recently took a "fresh look" at VoIP capabilities, and decided it would be a valuable capability that would be an "attractive option" for consumers.

"iPhone is an innovative device that dramatically changed the game in wireless when it was introduced just two years ago," said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO, AT&T Mobility & Consumer Markets. "Today’s decision was made after evaluating our customers’ expectations and use of the device compared to dozens of others we offer."

Skype President Josh Silverman praised the decision. Previously, such applications were only allowed to operate via Wi-Fi.

"We applaud today’s announcement by AT&T to open up its 3G network to Internet calling applications such as Skype," Silverman said. "It is the right step for AT&T, Apple, millions of mobile Skypers and the Internet itself. Nonetheless, the positive actions of one company are no substitute for a government policy that protects openness and benefits consumers and we look forward to further innovations that will enable even more mobile Skype calling."

Earlier Tuesday, a report from The Washington Post alleged that a source "close to the thinking of AT&T executives" passed word that officials could agree to VoIP services on all AT&T handsets, including the iPhone. However, the report also incorrectly stated that Google Voice is a VoIP service. In reality, Google Voice requires a telephone connection with a reachable number to allow the service to call its users.

The announcement this week coincides with the wireless industry's CTIA conference due to start Wednesday. Such a change could be due to increased pressure from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission on wireless network operators.

"As the debate over an FCC proposal for stronger net neutrality rules escalates, some industry sources speculate that the phone giant may make an announcement at the CTIA conference that shows it is moving toward more open policies on its wireless network," the report said. "The proposed rules would prohibit firms like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner from blocking applications on their telecom, cable and mobile networks."

Last month, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski spoke out in favor of net neutrality, stating that the commission must be active in preserving a free and open Internet.

As a strictly VoIP service, Skype would need to run on AT&T's 3G data network in the absence of Wi-Fi. The current version of the iPhone Skype application only operates via Wi-Fi due to an agreement between Apple and AT&T over network data usage.

The situation with Google Voice, however, is different. Apple and AT&T have both claimed the wireless carrier played no part in the non-acceptance of the Google Voice application in the iPhone App Store — that decision was made entirely by Apple, due to the fact that the service duplicates the phone's core features. Google has contended that its application was rejected from the App Store; while Apple has argued that it just hasn't accepted it.

Traditionally a VoIP service, Vonage also had its own software released on the App Store this week. However, unlike Skype, the Vonage application uses AT&T's phone service, not Internet data. Users who utilize the Vonage application would pay for minutes from Vonage, but cell phone minutes with AT&T would also be used up.