Net Neutrality Groups Challenge AT&T FaceTime Blocking

Photo: Myles!/Flickr

The he-said, she-said banter may end soon about whether AT&T is breaching so-called net neutrality rules by limiting the use of iPhone’s FaceTime video calling on cellular networks to customers who sign up for new, shared data plans.

Online rights groups said Tuesday they are asking the Federal Communications Commission to weigh in on the matter. By rule, Public Knowledge, Free Press and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute can file their net neutrality complaint with the FCC in 10 days because the clock started ticking when the groups notified the nation’s second-largest carrier of their intent Tuesday.

To date, Apple’s FaceTime, which allows live video conversations between users of Apple devices, 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 Wednesday and will spread even wider once the new iPhone 5 starts landing in hands Friday.

AT&T says it 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).

Among other things, the company says that it is simply a business decision to use FaceTime as a hostage to move recalcitrant customers to a new plan.

At issue are FCC 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 groups say FaceTime counts as this kind of alternate calling service and thus is protected by the net neutrality rules.

The nation’s largest carrier, Verizon, and the third largest, Sprint, won’t limit FaceTime over cellular. T-Mobile, the smallest of the Big Four carriers, does not carry the iPhone.

AT&T 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 on iPhones, a position the digital rights groups scoffed at.

The regulations, however, 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.