Apple's FaceTime Held Hostage Over AT&T Mobile Share Plans

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AT&T announced last week that it will finally allow its iPhone and iPad customers to use Apple's FaceTime video chat application over its mobile broadband network - but only for customers on its new, more expensive, Mobile Share data plans. Today, Bob Quinn, the senior vice president of AT&T's federal regulatory group, took to AT&T's Public Policy Blog to defend the company's actions. Specifically, Quinn seeks to defend AT&T against charges that it broke net neutrality rules. From the blog post:

Providers of mobile broadband Internet access service are subject to two net neutrality requirements: (1) a transparency requirement pursuant to which they must disclose accurate information regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of their broadband Internet access services; and (2) a no-blocking requirement under which they are prohibited, subject to reasonable network management, from blocking applications that compete with the provider’s voice or video telephony services.

AT&T’s plans for FaceTime will not violate either requirement. Our policies regarding FaceTime will be fully transparent to all consumers, and no one has argued to the contrary. There is no transparency issue here.

A quick time-out here to point out that AT&T is very specifically following the net neutrality rules it is required to. Namely, they must disclose their network management practices and not block applications that the company itself competes with.

Sure, AT&T may not be ringing any anti-competitive bells with its FaceTime decision and it is, according to Quinn, following the FCC's rules to the letter. It is, however, holding the app hostage to coerce its subscribers to change to a more expensive mobile plan. The spirit of net neutrality is that customers should be able to use the bandwidth they pay for however they choose - and AT&T is certainly violating that spirit.

Quinn goes on to state that blocking applications that are preloaded on phones is not against FCC rules, because there are other video chat apps available. Quinn continues:

Although the rules don’t require it, some preloaded apps are available without charge on phones sold by AT&T, including FaceTime, but subject to some reasonable restrictions. To date, all of the preloaded video chat applications on the phones we sell, including FaceTime, have been limited to Wi-Fi. With the introduction of iOS6, we will extend the availability of the preloaded FaceTime to our mobile broadband network for our Mobile Share data plans which were designed to make more data available to consumers. To be clear, customers will continue to be able to use FaceTime over Wi-Fi irrespective of the data plan they choose. 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.

There you have it. AT&T's response is long on how legal its actions are, but not a lot was said to allay consumer complaints. On the other hand, AT&T is a carrier with a massive number of iPhone subscribers, and the iPhone's popularity doesn't appear to be waning. With that much data flying across their network, perhaps the company really does need to parse out access to things such as video chat.

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