AT&T gets waiver from FCC, will move ahead with Wi-Fi calling launch

AT&T (NYSE: T) received a waiver from the FCC on its rules for the hearing impaired that it said were prohibiting it from offering Wi-Fi calling services. However, it's unclear how soon AT&T will enable Wi-Fi calling on the iPhone and other devices.

The FCC gave AT&T a temporary, limited waiver of the agency's requirements to support text telephony (TTY) technology on wireless networks "to the extent that they use Internet Protocol (IP) technologies." The waiver expires Dec. 31, 2017, "or upon the effective date of rules providing for alternative IP-based wireless accessibility solutions, whichever is earlier."

AT&T in June requested a waiver from the FCC's TTY rules. TTY was invented in 1964 and was designed to allow a user to type on a keyboard and have those tones broadcast on a phone line to a user on the other end, thus supporting non-voice conversations. Instead of the old-fashioned TTY, AT&T said the FCC should recognize real time text (RTT) as an alternative accessibility solution for the deaf and hard of hearing. AT&T said it will support RTT conversations starting next year. Thus, the carrier asked for a waiver from the FCC's TTY requirements until the RTT technology can be implemented.

It's unclear when AT&T will start offering RTT service for Wi-Fi calling services or Wi-Fi calling on the iPhone via Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) new iOS 9 software, or when AT&T might offer Wi-Fi calling on other smartphone platforms. An AT&T spokesman said details on the timing of the launches would be coming soon but declined to comment further.  

In granting the waiver, the FCC said that its staff was "persuaded that there are major technical barriers to reliably supporting TTY transmissions over IP networks." The commission's order also said "there is also general agreement that overall use of TTYs has declined greatly, and that TTYs are seldom used on wireless networks."

The FCC noted, however, that consumers with communications disabilities do continue to rely on TTYs. "We have concerns about ensuring the availability of essential connectivity for such consumers," the FCC said. "Of particular concern is the extent to which consumers with communications disabilities will be able to access 911 service during the waiver period."

"Notwithstanding these concerns, due to the acknowledged limitations of TTY technology and the limited use of wireless networks by TTY users, we expect that the waiver's impact on the inability of consumers with communications disabilities to access 911 services over IP-based wireless services with their TTYs will be insignificant," the FCC said.

Notably, the FCC order said that "comparable waivers may be granted to other similarly situated applicants that meet the necessary criteria for waiver relief and commit to complying with the conditions stated herein." Last week AT&T slammed Sprint (NYSE: S) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) for offering Wi-Fi calling services without requesting waivers from the FCC's rules.

In a footnote in the order, the FCC notes that AT&T has said that various other carriers, including T-Mobile and Sprint, already have begun to offer VoIP services, but does not take a stand on whether they are in defiance of the FCC's rules. "Given the limitations of TTY technology in a wireless IP network as enumerated in the record of this proceeding, the extent to which such providers are in compliance with our TTY obligations remains unclear," the FCC said. "It would not be appropriate to grant a waiver to such entities without receiving further explanation from such entities about their current and future plans for meeting the accessibility needs of people with communications disabilities in an IP wireless environment."

"We're grateful the FCC has granted AT&T's waiver request so we can begin providing Wi-Fi calling," Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, said in a statement. 

Yet Cicconi said that AT&T thinks its competitors should be sanctioned by the FCC. "At the same time we are left scratching our heads as to why the FCC still seems intent on excusing the behavior of T-Mobile and Sprint, who have been offering these services without a waiver for quite some time," he added. "Instead of initiating enforcement action against them, or at least opening an investigation, the agency has effectively invited them to now apply for similar waivers and implied that their prior flaunting of FCC rules will be ignored. This is exactly what we meant when our letter spoke of concerns about asymmetric regulation."

A Sprint spokesman declined to comment and an FCC spokesman declined to comment but pointed to the footnote in the order for the agency's position on Sprint and T-Mobile's Wi-Fi calling services and whether they are in violation of the FCC's rules. 

"We look forward to the FCC clarifying requirements that will ensure access to the next wave of IP technologies, but in the interim, TTY is fully supported on 100% of T-Mobile's devices and across the breadth of our UMTS and GSM networks -- this is true for Wi-Fi calling capable devices, too," T-Mobile said in a statement to FierceWireless.

For more:
- see this FCC order

Related articles:
AT&T: Sprint and T-Mobile are offering Wi-Fi calling 'in defiance' of FCC rules
AT&T explains delay on iOS 9 and Wi-Fi calling
T-Mobile, Apple, Google lead the way on Wi-Fi calling
AT&T still aims to launch Wi-Fi calling in 2015
Sprint brings Wi-Fi calling feature to newer iPhones, but smooth handoffs are MIA

Article updated Oct. 7 at 9 a.m. ET with additional information.

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