Does Skype Via iPhone 3G Matter?

iPhone users who like making calls, but don't like paying AT&T's voice rates, are rejoicing this week. Skype has announced that a new app is available that will allow iPhone owners to make Skype calls over AT&T's 3G network. Up to now, they could only make Skype calls over WiFi. Does this mark a major change for how customers will use their iPhones? Maybe, but not necessarily.

First, this change mostly affects those who do a huge amount of talking on their iPhones or make lots of international calls. The average user who doesn't exceed their minimum monthly calling plan will be largely unaffected: a voice plan will likely continue to be required when you purchase an iPhone. So you can't escape voice charges entirely.

But you may be able to lower them. Those who use several thousand minutes of calls in a month, for example, can avoid overages or higher-priced plans and use their Skype accounts instead. Similarly, anyone who makes international calls can now avoid AT&T's lofty international calling rates. Instead, they can make these calls over AT&T's network through the Skype app at lower rates. Even though this was all possible before over WiFi, expanding this capability to the 3G network will makes Skype calling much, much easier.

So some consumers will be pleased with this news. Probably. The press release from Skype also says:

Skype-to-Skype calls on 3G will be free for a trial period which will run until the end of 2010*. Details of pricing will be announced in the coming months and will be in line with Skype's commitment to providing customers with great value. Skype-to-Skype calls over WiFi will still remain free.

In other words, it's not going to be totally free to make these calls. But it's plausible that it will be cheaper than what AT&T charges for long distance. Until these fee details are available, however, it will be hard to know how much cheaper it will be to use Skype instead of AT&T for mobile calling.

This news comes after Verizon allowed some phones to utilize Skype calling over its data network back in February. At that time, the pressure was on AT&T to allow the same. Now it has.

Other than AT&T, who might not be thrilled with this news from Skype? Any iPhone users who don't intend to use Skype for calling. Since this new capability will mostly appeal to those who do a huge amount of calling, greater stress could be put on AT&T's network. These users will no longer feel the need to rely on WiFi, and will more commonly utilize 3G instead. The hope, presumably, is that whatever Skype charges manages to offset too much additional usage on the part of those heavy voice consumers. But there's almost no doubt that more data usage will occur now that iPhone users can place Skype calls over 3G.

As voice calling over data networks gain popularity, what's another likely outcome? Higher data fees forced on consumers. If AT&T and other service providers see a huge departure from voice to data, expect them to shift their business models accordingly. In the meantime, enjoy the transition when unlimited data usage comes at a low price. It won't last forever.