AT&T: Holding FaceTime Hostage Is No Net-Neutrality Breach

Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr

The nation’s second largest mobile carrier, AT&T, went on the offensive Wednesday, claiming it would not be breaching so-called net neutrality rules by limiting the iPhone’s FaceTime video calling on cellular networks to users with new, shared data plans.

AT&T will make the video-chat service available on its cellular network for those with generally more expensive, shared data plans, which the company unveiled last month. (There are some configurations where the shared plan is less expensive for the same service for individuals).

To date, Apple’s FaceTime has worked only over Wi-Fi, but Apple is changing that, opening the Skype-like service to function over cellular connections. The change comes when Apple’s newest mobile-phone operating system debuts in September, likely the same time the next generation of the iPhone lands.

An AT&T spokeswoman, speaking on background, disputed it was using cellular FaceTime as a “premium” feature, but acknowledged the company was using it as a lever to get users to switch over to the new plans which charge for data usage in tiers.

Bob Quinn, an AT&T senior vice president, said the main reason why there is no breach of the Federal Communications Commission’s net-neutrality rules is because the FaceTime application comes pre-installed.

“The FCC’s net neutrality rules do not regulate the availability to customers of applications that are preloaded on phones,” he said in a blog post. He said AT&T is not blocking the app, but that it reserves the right to enforce “some reasonable restrictions” to manage expected traffic congestion of the data-hogging app.

Digital rights groups scoffed at the suggestion.

“AT&T is inventing words that are not in the FCC’s rules in a weak attempt to justify its blocking of FaceTime,” said S. Derek Turner, research director for Free Press. “The FCC’s rules are crystal clear: AT&T is not permitted to block voice or video telephony applications that compete with its own services. There is simply nothing in the rules that distinguishes ‘preloaded’ applications from ‘downloaded’ applications.”

John Bergmayer, a staff attorney with Public Knowledge, said FCC rules “prevent carriers from blocking certain kinds of apps — period. AT&T is blocking FaceTime for all of its iPhone customers who do not subscribe to its premium ‘Mobile Shared’ plans, and this runs afoul of the rules.”

The regulations do allow for certain kinds of mobile network management during periods of congestion, but these cannot unfairly target services that compete with the carriers’ own services.

Quinn added that “customers will continue to be able to use FaceTime over Wi-Fi” regardless of their data plans.

“We are broadening our customers’ ability to use the preloaded version of FaceTime but limiting it in this manner to our newly developed AT&T Mobile Share data plans out of an overriding concern for the impact this expansion may have on our network and the overall customer experience.”

AT&T shared data plans allow customers to share as much as 20 gigabytes of data use among multiple devices, and include unlimited texting and talking.

Apple’s FaceTime app allows live video conversations between users of Apple devices.

At issue are new net neutrality rules that went into effect in November.

The rules prohibit DSL and cable companies from unfairly blocking services they don’t like and require them to be transparent about how they manage their networks during times of congestion.

Mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon face fewer rules, but are banned from interfering with alternate calling services such as Skype that compete with the carriers’ services.

The nation’s largest carrier, Verizon, which has remained mum on its FaceTime plans, is already suing the FCC over the rules. A federal appeals court struck down a previous FCC attempt to enforce similar principles against Comcast after the cable internet provider was caught secretly interfering with peer-to-peer file sharing.

Sprint, which strives to differentiate itself from Verizon and AT&T by stressing its unlimited usage plan, has said it would not charge for cellular FaceTime use. T-Mobile, the smallest of the Big Four carriers, does not carry the iPhone.