Watchdogs Say AT&T's FaceTime Restrictions Will Violate Neutrality Regs

SmartPhone-Blackberry-A4AT&T's plans for the FaceTime video chat iPhone app violate Net neutrality rules, public interest groups contend.

The telecom confirmed late last week that it will only allow consumers to use the app on its 3G mobile network if they subscribe to the new shared data plans. Consumers who continue to subscribe to older, individual data plans will only be able to use FaceTime on WiFi networks.

Consumer advocates Public Knowledge and Free Press say that AT&T's decision to restrict FaceTime for subscribers on older plans violates a neutrality rule that prohibits wireless providers from impeding consumers from using competing apps. "They're blocking a class of customers from accessing an application that directly competes with AT&T's voice service," says Joel Kelsey, policy adviser at Free Press.

He says AT&T's move will thwart consumers on non-shared plans who want to use FaceTime for voice calls. Subscribers to AT&T's older plans typically pay for calls by purchasing a block of minutes (such as $40 a month for 450 minutes), and also pay charges for the broadband data they consume (such as $30 a month for 3 GB of data).

Telephone calls made through apps like FaceTime aren't counted against subscribers' voice minutes, so some consumers theoretically could save money by purchasing an older plan and using an app to make phone calls.

AT&T spokesperson Mark Siegel disputes that the company is blocking the app. "FaceTime is available to all of our customers today over WiFi, and we’re now expanding its availability even further as an added benefit of our new Mobile Share data plans," he says.

But Free Press says that consumers shouldn't be restricted to using the app over WiFi when they pay monthly fees to use AT&T's data network -- which often is available in locales that lack WiFi.

"If you're paying for 3 GB of data per month, you should be able to use that however you want," Kelsey says.

Public Knowledge Senior Staff Attorney John Bergmayer adds that AT&T lacks a justification for restricting the app to people who subscribe to shared data plans. "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," he says.

Although Free Press and Public Knowledge say that AT&T's plans conflict with the FCC's neutrality regulations, it's not yet clear that those rules are enforceable. Verizon and MetroPCS recently challenged the neutrality rules in court. They argue that the FCC lacks authority to regulate broadband, because it is an information service and not a telecommunications service.

The companies have asked an appeals court to vacate the regulations.

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