Last week we released a video (embedded above) illustrating how the potentially awesome Skype app for the Droid is actually an epic fail of a shell game. For those of you that missed it, the Verizon Wireless mobile version of Skype, the program that lets you make free and low cost calls over the Internet, actually uses Verizon’s voice network to make calls. Furthermore, it prevents you from connecting to a WiFi hotspot in order to use the Internet to connect.
Our goal in creating this video was not to create some sort of gotcha moment for Skype and Verizon Wireless. Instead, we wanted to illustrate the importance of preventing wireless carriers from dictating what types of programs people can install on their phones or computers.
When we at Public Knowledge think about network neutrality, one of the most important distinctions is between decisions made as part of “reasonable network management” and decisions made for other, non-technical reasons. Reasonable network management is not done based on the source or destination of traffic and is carried out in a content neutral way. In contrast, a rule that excludes certain lawful applications or prioritizes traffic based on the sender or receiver would violate network neutrality principles.
This distinction is vividly illustrated in the case of Skype on the Verizon Wireless network. It would be one thing to limit Skype on carriers’ 3G networks if it was technically not possible to use it, or if somehow using Skype on your Droid over WiFi interfered with the network. However, in this case, there is no technical reason why Skype cannot be used normally on Verizon’s network.
As you can see in the chart above, I can connect my netbook to either Verizon or AT&T’s wireless network and can use it to make Skype calls. The terms of service for Verizon’s mobile broadband offering explicitly list “voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)” as a permitted use. Similarly, AT&T’s netbook sales page explains that a netbook connected to their network will allow you to do things like video conference. This demonstrates that these networks can technically support Skype over 3G.
With a netbook, I can also connect to a WiFi hotspot and run Skype. In fact, I can connect a laptop, or even a desktop to a WiFi hotspot and run Skype.
But… if I shrink that netbook down a little bit more, so it is the size of an iPhone or a Droid, things start to get complicated. On an iPhone, I can make Skype calls over a WiFi network, but not the AT&T 3G network. On a Droid, I can make Skype calls over the Verizon voice network (pretending to be the 3G network), but not over WiFi.
Why the differences? I don’t know. All I know is that they don’t appear to be due to any sort of technical limitations of the network – after all, the network can support a netbook running Skype. The most logical answer is that this all relates to a business decision made by some combination of AT&T, Verizon, and Skype. It might be a perfectly logical business decision, but that further highlights the importance of net neutrality. Sometimes perfectly logical business decisions harm innovation and consumers. For something as important as the communications backbone of our country, that doesn’t work.