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AT&T’s Not-So-Secret Veto over 3G SlingPlayer Mobile
WASHINGTON - May 14 - Modern TV is digital, and it is everywhere - from the laptop to the cell phone to the wristwatch. If it has a screen and a radio, you can probably watch TV on it. Innovations abound in this market. One of these, the Slingbox, redirects cable television signals over the Internet for remote viewing. With the right technology, consumers can watch TV anywhere, any time.
Unless those consumers use iPhones, that is. The version of the
Slingbox remote, SlingPlayer Mobile, released in the Apple application
store comes with access to AT&T's wireless 3G network permanently disabled. As the Apple store is the only
(practical) way to add applications to the iPhone, users are effectively denied access to this innovative new service.
Why did Apple restrict SlingPlayer Mobile? After all, Apple has no real incentive to forbid 3G access. SlingPlayer Mobile met all of Apple's app store technical requirements. And, the more useful and valuable the applications for the iPhone, the more iPhones will be sold.
The true source of this prohibition is AT&T, who seems to hold a
(not-so) secret veto over every application released in the app store.
With SlingPlayer Mobile, AT&T has not even attempted to hide its involvement. After the story broke, AT&T released an official statement explaining why SlingPlayer Mobile was not permitted to use the 3G network:
"Slingbox, which would use large amounts of wireless network capacity, could create congestion and potentially prevent other customers from using the network. The application does not run on our 3G wireless network. Applications like this, which redirect a TV signal to a personal computer, are specifically prohibited under our terms of service. We consider smartphones like the iPhone to be personal computers in that they have the same hardware and software attributes as PCs...."
Does this sound familiar? It should -- Robb Topolski blogged about AT&T's terms of service in April. Let's recall the history of AT&T's "disappearing, reappearing"
prohibition on mobile video. In late March, AT&T modified its prohibition on redirecting a TV signal to a "personal computer" to include "any technology from a fixed location to a mobile device." After substantial complaints over language that seemed targeted specifically to Sling Media, AT&T retracted the change, claiming it "was done in error." Shortly thereafter, AT&T re-inserted the original language, prompting some to declare the language a "non-issue."
But, two weeks after the change, SlingPlayer Mobile was released, with its 3G connectivity disabled. It appears not only plausible, but likely, that SlingPlayer Mobile was waiting in the Apple store's approval process while AT&T made these changes to its terms of service to more clearly prohibit the application's use over 3G. When that attempt failed, AT&T decided to call the iPhone a "personal computer" in order to awkwardly fit its prohibition within the original terms of service.
AT&T's behavior towards SlingPlayer Mobile mirrors its treatment of Skype, another iPhone application permitted over Wi- Fi but not AT&T's 3G network. Unlike SlingPlayer Mobile, the use of Skype is not prohibited by AT&T's terms of service. Instead, AT&T defends its Skype restriction by saying that Skype isn't being blocked in the network. As with its convoluted response to SlingPlayer Mobile, AT&T doesn't seem to get the point.
Consumers have the right to use the applications of their choice on the Internet, as Free Press argued in a recent letter to the FCC, asking for an investigation into AT&T's Skype blocking. Circumventing openness by blocking an application, whether in the network or through secret vetos over the distribution chain, goes against the consumer rights established by the Federal Communications Commission in its Internet Policy Statement.
Even AT&T recognizes that the principles of the Internet Policy Statement apply to both wired and wireless networks. The Washington Post quotes AT&T's lead lobbyist Jim Cicconi as saying,
"The same principals [sic] should apply across the board. As people
migrate to the use of wireless devices to access the Internet, they . .
certainly expect that we treat these services the same way."
This begs the question: Why does AT&T want to block SlingPlayer Mobile and Skype? AT&T has essentially admitted that it prohibits Skype out of anti-competitive motives. Cicconi told USA Today "We absolutely expect our vendors not to facilitate the services of our competitors." AT&T's exclusive deal with Apple for the iPhone has netted the company many, many new customers (most of whom are now locked into lengthy AT&T contracts). These individuals deserve a better explanation than they've been getting.
Perhaps AT&T is a victim of its own success. By adding so many users before adequately building out its network to accommodate them, AT&T may worry that widespread SlingPlayer Mobile usage will reveal the limits of its network. However, a comparable application, OrbLive, was approved, and the iPhone comes with a built-in, non- removable YouTube button, so the network can clearly handle some video.
If AT&T's network is indeed limited, the right solution is not to hide the limitations from consumers and spend money on lobbyists to fight for the right to block. The right solution is to be up front about limitations on the network, on the reasons why YouTube is ok but SlingPlayer Mobile is not. The right solution is to allow applications, including Skype, over the network in a nondiscriminatory manner. And the right solution is to build the network out as fast as possible to accommodate the applications that consumers want (and have the right) to use. Popular demand is reason to accommodate, not to prohibit.
And if AT&T won't do the right thing, then Congress and the FCC should step in. The open Internet must be protected on all access networks, whether wired or wireless. For consumers, there's no "wired Internet" and "wireless Internet" -- there is only "the Internet."
By Chris Riley, policy counsel, Free Press