AT&T’s Not-So-Secret Veto over 3G SlingPlayer Mobile

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Josh Stearns, 413-585-1533 x204

AT&T’s Not-So-Secret Veto over 3G SlingPlayer Mobile

WASHINGTON - 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

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Free Press is a national, nonpartisan organization working to reform the media. Through education, organizing and advocacy, we promote diverse and independent media ownership, strong public media, and universal access to communications. Learn more at www.freepress.net

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