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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 12/30/2010

Skype brings 3G video calls to the iPhone

By Rob Pegoraro

The iPhone now makes a decent video phone -- even if you're away from a WiFi hot spot. Skype shipped an update to its free iPhone application Thursday that adds video-calling capability to the iPhone 4, the iPhone 3GS and the current, fourth-generation iPod touch.

And the new Skype 3.0, unlike Apple's FaceTime, works over AT&T's 3G mobile broadband.

That's not through any cooperation with the wireless carrier, Skype says.

"We've not checked with AT&T," said Neil Stevens, Skype's vice president and general manager for consumer products, in a Skype interview Wednesday. "We don't think it's our position to check in with carriers."

skye_iphone_3g.PNG

I tested the new app in a round of brief calls from an iPhone 4, loaned by Apple's PR department, to an iMac and vice versa, then between that iPhone and a loaner iPod touch. Every call connected in a second or two, stayed up until I ended it myself and delivered Skype's typically good audio quality. But Skype's low-resolution video stream looked lousy even over five bars of an AT&T signal, and switching to my home's faster wireless network didn't improve it.

(In the screen grab, I'm holding the iPhone up to the iMac's webcam so it can see an image of its own screen in the Mac's copy of Skype for a hall-of-mirrors effect.)

Then again, FaceTime doesn't look that hot either.

You pay in bandwidth for the privilege of Skype 3G video calling. The iPhone's usage records showed it ate up 15.9 megabytes of data coming and going during a five-minute video call. At an average of 3.2 MB a minute, it would take little more than an hour to burn through the 200 MB monthly quota on AT&T's entry-level data plan.

Skype 3.0 needs about 600 kilobits per second of upload and download bandwidth to avoid sacrificing video quality; most 3G connections won't leave much headroom on the upload link. It also lets third-gen iPod touch models and iPads receive video calls.

Sub-VHS-grade video notwithstanding, bringing 3G video calling to the iPhone is an impressive achievement when you remember that Skype's first incarnation on Apple's smartphone only allowed voice calls over WiFi. AT&T waited another six months to say it swould open 3G access for Skype on the iPhone. (The Federal Communications Commission's just-passed net-neutrality regulatory framework would forbid that sort of blocking.)

What about the iPhone's major competitor, Google's Android operating system? While Stevens said the Luxembourg-based firm is "working hard on an Android version" with video-calling support, any U.S. release will remain subject to an exclusive deal with Verizon Wireless that limits Skype voice calling to WiFi on non-Verizon phones. (Its Verizon-specific app can only place calls over 3G, not WiFi, although the company is working to fix that gap.)

Stevens wouldn't discuss the duration of Skype's Verizon deal, but in calling the carrier "a serious partner for us," he didn't sound like that arrangement would end soon.

Other smartphone operating systems look to be on hold for Skype video calls, owing to lack of perceived demand (Research In Motion's BlackBerry and HP's webOS) or operating-system incompatibility (Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 doesn't let developers use a phone's video camera).

Have you tried Skype's new iPhone app yet? If so, what's your early review of it? If not, what's on your requirements list for a smartphone video-calling program?

(11:08 a.m. GigaOM writer Kevin C. Tofel notes an advantage of Skype over FaceTime in his review: Skype tells you if a contact is online and ready for a call, while Apple's software leaves you guessing. I've also fixed a spellcheck-proof typo in Stevens' name four paragraphs up.)

By Rob Pegoraro  | December 30, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Telecom, Video  
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Comments

The new Net Neutrality rules forbid ATT from blocking 3g access, but Verizon can prevent other carriers from using Skype?

So Skype can only make an Android version for Verizon phones? Then how do they have a version for iphone which is on ATT?

How about if companies make a good product/service customers will pay for it? EG, make the iphone for whichever carriers you want & customers will buy it with the carrier they think is best.

Posted by: wvp123 | December 30, 2010 7:38 AM | Report abuse

I just tried video chat using Skype for iPhone and it works amazingly. Video and sound quality is almost the same as using a laptop computer. I'm based here in Hong Kong and I called a relative from the Philippines and at an instant I was able to make a connection. I even walked outside my office and went into a mall for dinner and never had a disconnection using a 3G network. There's just one glicth wherein the sound went off when I answered an incoming call. I didn't lost Skype connection though after the call but sound was gone, so I guess this is something Skype should work on. But overall, It was excellent.

Posted by: nitramonigem | December 30, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Using Skype across 3G seems like an obvious step in todays world

Yet, I am sure AT&T will do their best to block it....unless people pay an extra fee....and of course those with the 2gb cap (which should be criminally blocked by the government) won't be able to do this

AT&T saying that 2gb is enough of a cap in today's world is an absolute JOKE

Posted by: Bious | December 30, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

if the inventitive minds would focus on something useful, we could solve some problems instead of distracting ourselves with useless electronic gadgets.

Posted by: boblesch | December 30, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I just used the new release of Skype for iPhone and it worked quite well. I attempted video connections both over WiFi and 3G and both connected fairly quickly and the quality was decent.

Posted by: misdirjcb | December 30, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

AT&T won't block it...they WANT people to run through their bandwidth caps...so that they can ding people with those high overage fees...

Posted by: squatty2 | December 30, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

A cautionary tale about video calling: when I was working on a videophone project using Intel ProShare way back in 1995-ish I got a random call from the client one morning to test the thing. Imagine rolling out of bed to a video phone call...a business phone call.

I decided right then and there that I much preferred voice calls. I'm sure a video call has its uses, I just can't think of any right now.

Posted by: BoteMan | December 30, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I just talked to my son on his mobile through Skype: he is in London and I am in the depth of France. It worked very well.

Posted by: tlh1 | December 30, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Not interested. An impractical parlor trick. Consumers are not demanding video calling.

AT&T did the first video phone demo in the 1960's. Since then, every 5 years or some someone comes up with another video calling scheme that doesn't catch on. Kind of like reading about the impending Flying Car in Popular Science every five years for the last 50 years.

Posted by: RepealObamacareNow | December 30, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

people may not be demanding it, but it is available, free, & usable.
Don't be a hater gramps.

Posted by: Rocc00 | December 30, 2010 11:52 PM | Report abuse

I see Skype took about four months to catch up with Yahoo Messenger Video chat. Now at least there's competition to keep both on their game. Worked great with Crystal clear picture, Yahoo, that is, no Skype contacts online.

Posted by: jrbettis | January 1, 2011 2:08 AM | Report abuse

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