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AT&T accuses Federal Communications Commission of favoritism

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Marguerite Reardon/CNET

AT&T is accusing the Federal Communications Commission of operating under a double standard when it comes to enforcing agency rules.

In a letter Thursday to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the company said the agency has been slow to approve a waiver for a Wi-Fi calling feature that doesn’t meet FCC rules about accessibility for speech- and hearing-impaired people.

The Dallas, Texas-based phone company applied for the waiver in June, hoping to launch the feature September 25 alongside Apple’s release of its latest iOS 9 software, which supports the feature. T-Mobile and Sprint, meanwhile, have been offering the feature for more than a year without a waiver, in violation of federal rules, AT&T said. The company said the FCC has done nothing to enforce its regulations.

“There is growing concern at AT&T that there is an asymmetry in the application of federal regulations to AT&T on the one hand and its marketplace competitors on the other hand,” Jim Cicconi, head of legislative affairs for AT&T, wrote in the letter. “This situation simply adds fuel to the fire.”

The letter comes amid claims by the nation’s second-largest wireless provider that it’s being picked on by the FCC. Earlier this year, the commission announced it would seek a $100 million fine against AT&T for deceiving customers who signed up for its unlimited-data plan. The company slows down the service without proper notification or explanation, the FCC said, a violation of agency rules. AT&T denies the assertion. The company has also been wrangling with the FCC over rules for an upcoming auction of wireless spectrum. The auction will set aside a block of licenses that only smaller operators can bid on, excluding bids from larger players AT&T and Verizon.

The FCC declined to comment on Cicconi’s claim that the agency hasn’t cracked down equally on rule violations. But an FCC spokesman said the agency hasn’t been dragging its feet on the waiver application. Instead, the public comment period closed only recently and the agency is reviewing the remarks.

TTY versus RTT AT&T claims T-Mobile and Sprint, which have been offering a feature that lets phone calls automatically switch to a Wi-Fi connection when a cellular connection is weak, aren’t complying with FCC rules requiring voice service to provide accommodations for the speech- and hearing-impaired.

AT&T says all telecommunications services are required to support teletypewriter service, or TTY, which lets the speech- and hearing-impaired type messages over the phone network using devices with keyboards.

The problem is that TTY devices don’t operate reliably over Wi-Fi connections, and AT&T has devised an alternative solution, which it claims is technically superior to TTY. The company said in its letter that disability advocates support its “real time text,” or RTT, solution, want it implemented quickly, and generally support AT&T’s request for a temporary waiver.

In a separate proceeding, AT&T has asked the FCC to replace the antiquated technology used in the older TTY rules with its solution. Until that issue is settled, the company has requested a temporary waiver of the rules in order to provide Wi-Fi calling.

AT&T said in its letter that T-Mobile and Sprint have been offering Wi-Fi calling services for “well over a year on Android devices and for months on iOS devices,” with neither carrier requesting a waiver of the TTY regulations. AT&T said it won’t offer the Wi-Fi calling feature until its waiver petition is approved.

“We are not in a position to provide Wi-Fi calling services to our customers even while our competitors provide those services in defiance of the commission’s rules,” Cicconi wrote.

T-Mobile said in a statement that it’s “in full compliance with the FCC rules.” Sprint declined to comment.

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