updated 11:58 pm EDT, Mon August 20, 2012
FCC talking with AT&T about limiting FaceTime to certain plans
One of the new features in Apple's iOS6 release due this fall is an enhancement to the FaceTime video call feature, allowing it to function on any cellular network. Friday, AT&T announced that the privilege only extends to users on its new "Mobile Share" programs, and not for users grandfathered on the unlimited or tiered data plans. Public Knowledge, a nonprofit Internet law group, believes that preventing other customers from using FaceTime violates net neutrality rules by blocking a service that competes with its own.
John Bergmayer, Senior Staff Attorney at Public Knowledge, said "By blocking FaceTime for many of its customers, AT&T is violating the FCC's Open Internet rules. These rules state that mobile providers shall not 'block applications that compete with the provider's voice or video telephony services.' Although carriers are permitted to engage in 'reasonable network management,' there is no technical reason why one data plan should be able to access FaceTime, and another not." While he did admit that FaceTime is a threat to a carrier's revenue, he believes that AT&T should compete with the service, and not engage in "discriminatory behavior" to combat it.
AT&T claims that FaceTime's availability on Wi-FI connections fulfills its net neutrality obligation. AT&T spokesman Mark Seigel responded by saying that "FaceTime is available to all of our customers today over Wi-Fi, and we’re now expanding its availability even further as an added benefit of our new Mobile Share data plans." AT&T allows Skype video chats over its 3G network, following FCC involvement.
Electronista spoke with an FCC representative regarding the Public Knowledge statement, and was told that the agency is "discussing the matter with AT&T" as the availability of a communications service on one communications method but not another is a "grey area." The FCC representative said that they were concerned that "forcing AT&T's hand with net neutrality will convince them to not upgrade the feature on their devices."
A similar interpretation of net neutrality laws was attempted by Verizon after the telco had asked Google to block tethering applications that allowed smartphone Internet connections to be shared with other devices. The carrier settled recently with the FCC for $1.25 million. Verizon wasn't allowed to block the apps because of rules attached to a spectrum purchase, which required it to offer open access to all applications and services. At present, AT&T is not operating under any such restriction, other than basic net neutrality rules.
Not all national carriers have implemented similar policies for FaceTime. Sprint last month committed to no additional charges for 3G FaceTime access. The forthcoming addition of the cellular option in iOS6 represents a challenge for AT&T and Verizon, both of which have been trying to steer users toward their capped data plans. Verizon, however, is said to be unable to hinder FaceTime over cellular as a result of a net neutrality promise to the FCC.