AT&T launches Wi-Fi calling for newer iPhones after getting FCC waiver

Just days after receiving what it said was a crucial FCC waiver, AT&T (NYSE: T) launched Wi-Fi calling on Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhones. The service works on the iPhone 6, 6 Plus, 6s and 6s Plus, as long as iOS 9 is installed, though it's unclear when AT&T will expand Wi-Fi calling to more devices. 

AT&T said customers can use Wi-Fi calling in areas where a cellular signal is tough to get, such as deep inside a building. Once the service is set up, which customers can do via their settings on their iPhones under phone settings and Wi-Fi calling options, AT&T said customers' phones will use Wi-Fi calling automatically in places where they have limited or no cell signal alongside a Wi-Fi connection. AT&T said Wi-Fi calling works in the background, allowing users to make and receive calls like they would on the carrier's cellular network. Wi-Fi Calling is available within the U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

During the iOS 9 setup process for its Wi-Fi calling service, AT&T confirms users' physical addresses in order to potentially provide a location to 911 operators if a user calls 911.

An AT&T spokeswoman told FierceWireless AT&T does not have any more details to share on future Wi-Fi calling launches on smartphones other than the iPhone. 

Earlier this week 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 for deaf and hard-of-hearing users, 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.

On its website on Wi-Fi calling, AT&T notes that the service "cannot be used with TTY devices and will not support 911 calls over TTY devices. Persons with communications disabilities can still reach 911 services by either (1) calling 911 directly using a TTY over the cellular network or a landline telephone, or (2) sending a text message to 911 directly (in areas where text-to-911 is available) using a wireless device over the cellular network, or (3) using relay services to place a TTY or captioned telephone service (CTS) call over the cellular network or a landline telephone, or (4) using relay services to place an IP Relay or IP CTS call over a cellular data or other IP network."

AT&T has sharply criticized 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."

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. 

Sprint has declined to comment but T-Mobile said it wants the FCC to clarify its requirements. "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 earlier this week.

For more:
- see this AT&T blog post
- see this AT&T website

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