The iPhone & the Lack of Voice Over 3G: Alternative Theory

Apple (s AAPL) and AT&T (s T) have come under continued criticism for not allowing VoIP over today’s 3G mobile broadband connections when using the iPhone. So much so that the matter got the attention of the FCC back in August, leading to explanations  from Apple and Ma Bell.

A few weeks ago, we had wondered why there were still no VoIP-over-3G connections. More recently, others asked that very question. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski sidestepped the issue during a conversation with Stacey and I earlier this month.

Now the popular consensus is that AT&T and Apple are a conniving bunch, and are preventing “VoIP over 3G” from taking root. But VoIP industry insiders have come up with an alternative theory — they believe that because the voice-over-3G experience is so bad, it makes sense for Apple, AT&T and others to not even bother with VoIP over 3G.

Our friend Andy Abramson has tried to make voice calls over 3G data connections via his jailbroken iPhone 3GS and has found the experience truly trying. “3G VoIP is not something I could consistently endorse as it’s not really ready for prime time,” he wrote on his blog.

Karl Good, Truphone’s director of applications, gives two reasons why his company has reservations about offering VoIP calling over 3G.

The first is that although a small number of networks, such as AT&T in the US, allow VoIP calling over 3G, this capability has not been approved by most operators, and has not been opened up across all handset manufacturers, such as the iPhone. As of today, iPhone applications that offer VoIP calling over 3G would not be approved by Apple for release into the App Store.

The second relates to quality. Although it is technically possible to offer VoIP calling over 3G on devices such as the Android, the relatively low bandwidth of 3G compared to Wi-Fi means that those calls are very often of a poor quality.

Pat Phelan, founder of Cubic Telecom, is of the same opinion and he offers an explanation as to why VoIP over 3G is a bad idea — at least for now:

  • Voice over 3G needs massive compression.
  • 3G speeds aren’t good enough for voice.
  • Latency, as measured by excessive ping times, makes it virtually impossible to have a decent conversation.

Skype in a recent filing with the FCC said it can run its voice service using small amounts of bandwidth — between 6 kbps and 40 kbps — so it doesn’t choke the network. But given the lack of latency on the network and other related issues, I bet even Skype doesn’t want to push hard to make its voice service work over 3G.