AT&T’s decision to make Apple’s FaceTime video chat feature available on its cellular network only through its premium data plan has raised questions over the interpretation of the federal government’s “no blocking” rule for wireless carriers - and whether smartphone users will have to pay more for video conferencing and other services.
Starting with the next version of Apple’s iOS operating system, expected in mid-September, FaceTime will be available over cellular network as well just Wi-Fi connections. AT&T is the first major carrier to announce plans to rein in that use by making the service available only to subscribers of its new Mobile Share data plans. Subscribers with a tiered or unlimited plan are out of luck.
So far, other carriers have been silent on FaceTime. Verizon Wireless did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Sprint essentially said no comment: “We cannot specifically comment on future pricing decisions,” a spokeswoman said in an email.
AT&T Denies It’s Violating Net Neutrality
AT&T’s handling of FaceTime has sparked debate on whether AT&T’s decision violates the net-neutrality rules set by the Federal Communications Commission. The carrier adamantly in rejects such allegations.
First of all, FaceTime is still available on Wi-Fi without any restrictions, so the AT&T says it can’t be accused of preventing someone from using the app. Secondly, the carrier is not blocking a competing service, because it doesn’t offer a video chat app.
AT&T goes on to argue that the FCC rules do not require carriers to make “preloaded apps” available, only downloadable apps that compete with their voice or video telephony services.
“Nonetheless, in another knee jerk reaction, some groups have rushed to judgment and claimed that AT&T’s plans will violate the FCC’s net neutrality rules,” AT&T said in a statement Wednesday. “Those arguments are wrong.”
Critics Say AT&T Is “Pretending”
One of the groups that would fit AT&T’s “rushed to judgment” categorization is Public Knowledge, a nonprofit group focused on Internet law. Public Knowledge says AT&T’s interpretation of the rule is wrong, because the carrier is pretending that the FCC categorizes apps.
“The FCC’s Open Internet rules do not distinguish between pre-loaded and downloaded apps,” John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge, said in a statement. “They prevent carriers from blocking certain kinds of apps - period.”
Bergmayer argues that AT&T just wants FaceTime fans to pay more. At the same time, the carrier wants to stifle the use of video conferencing apps like FaceTime, Skype and ooVoo, because they compete with other AT&T services.
“There’s no doubt that these apps are a competitive threat to AT&T’s voice service,” Bergmayer said. “But as the FCC made clear in its Open Internet rules, mobile providers must compete with these new services fair and square, and not by engaging in discriminatory behavior.”
No Word From The FCC
The FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Ultimately, the commission will decide which interpretation of its rules is closest to its intent. The “no blocking” rule, as it applies to wireless carriers, states: “Mobile broadband providers may not block lawful websites, or applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services.”
Beyond the net neutrality issues, AT&T is concerned with the impact a data-intensive app like FaceTime will have on network performance and customers' wallets. For several years after the release of the first iPhone in 2007, AT&T struggled to accommodate the huge increase in data traffic. The poor performance of its network in some major cities made the carrier the butt of jokes from comedians on national TV, as well as ridicule from customers.
Having learned its lesson, AT&T said it would be watching FaceTime usage. “We will be monitoring the impact the upgrade to this popular preloaded app has on our mobile broadband network, and customers, too, will be in a learning mode as to exactly how much data FaceTime consumes on those usage-based plans,” the carrier said. For users of measured data plans, FaceTime usage could quickly become expensive.
AT&T is not treating FaceTime any differently then competing apps. Rather, the debate reflects the passion of Apple’s fan base. Nevertheless, the FCC will need to clarify the no-blocking rule, or carriers will be free to interpret it anyway they wish.