AT&T Claims Innocence in Google-iPhone Flap

AT&T, Apple  and Google Voice

In a regulatory filing this afternoon, AT&T publicly disavowed claims that it had any role in pressuring Apple to accept or reject iPhone applications that are seen as competitive to its business interests.

The Federal Communications Commission had set today as a deadline for AT&T (NYSE: T), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) to respond to an inquiry into their respective roles in the rejection of the Google Voice mobile app for the iPhone.

“We appreciate the opportunity to clear up misconceptions related to an application Google submitted to Apple for inclusion in the Apple App Store,” Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, said in a statement.

“To that end, let me state unequivocally, AT&T had no role in any decision by Apple to not accept the Google Voice application for inclusion in the Apple App Store. AT&T was not asked about the matter by Apple at any time, nor did we offer any view one way or the other,” Cicconi said.

Apple did not dispute that claim in its filing, telling the FCC, “Apple alone makes the final decisions to approve or not approve iPhone applications.”

At issue is whether or not wireless carriers and handset makers in exclusive contracts are unjustly working together to limit features of products or services seen as competing with their respective entities.

Google Voice is the online search giant’s VoIP call-routing service, offering smartphone owners a centralized platform for handling a unified number, SMS and automated voicemail transcription. Google began offering the application in Android and BlackBerry versions in mid-July.

At the time, Google said an iPhone version was in the works, but later said the app had been rejected by Apple.

There had been widespread speculation that AT&T, which subsidizes sales of the device to subscribers, was playing a key role in the app denials.

But AT&T referred calls for comment to Apple, saying that it hadn’t been involved in accepting or rejecting apps.

In its filing today, Apple sought to dispel concerns that it blocked the app in an effort to stifle competition, and even said that the decision was not final.

“Contrary to published reports, Apple has not rejected the Google Voice
application, and continues to study it,” the company said in its filing. “The application has not been approved because, as submitted for review, it appears to alter the iPhone’s distinctive user experience by replacing the iPhone’s core mobile telephone functionality and Apple user interface with its own user interface for telephone calls, text messaging and voicemail.”

Both companies noted that iPhone users could still access the app through the iPhone’s Web interface, even if it was blocked from the app store.

In its inquiries, the FCC posed different questions to each of the three companies involved. Most of the queries to Google involved details of how the Voice app works and policies Google uses for accepting apps in the Android Market, the details of which are commonly known.

But when it came to the question, “What explanation was given, if any, of Apple’s rejection of the Google Voice application?” the search giant invoked the FCC’s offer of confidentiality, and redacted its response.

The FCC’s concerns about the Google Voice app highlights the mounting regulatory scrutiny the wireless industry is experiencing under the new administration.

In recent months, issues such as the consumer impact of handset exclusivity deals, text-messaging rates and open access requirements have all taken their turn in the regulatory spotlight.

Next Thursday, the FCC, headed up by newly appointed chairman Julius Genachowski, will open up two “notice of inquiries” on competition in the wireless industry.

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