Changing course, AT&T has decided to allow all users -- including those with unlimited data plans -- to use the FaceTime video chat app on its cellular network.
By mid-June, the telecom reportedly will allow all subscribers with LTE devices, including those on unlimted plans, to use Apple's FaceTime and other pre-loaded video chat apps -- including, presumably, Google Hangouts -- on the cellular network. By the end of the year, the company says it will “enable pre-loaded video chat apps over cellular for all our customers, regardless of data plan or device,” according to The Verge.
Assuming AT&T follows through, the move will mark a departure from current policy, which only allows people with unlimited data plans to access FaceTime on WiFi. As a practical matter, that restriction prevents many people from using the apps while in transit.
The controversy over FaceTime on AT&T dates to last August, when the company decided to prohibit 3G customers on older data plans -- including people without data caps -- from using the FaceTime video chat iPhone app on the mobile network.
Consumer advocates said at the time that AT&T's restriction violated neutrality rules prohibiting wireless providers from blocking apps that compete with their own services. In this case, FaceTime competed with voice services, which subscribers on older plans pay for by purchasing a block of minutes (such as $40 a month for 450 minutes). Calls made through apps don't count against the voice minutes, meaning that those subscribers could keep their bills low by using apps for phone calls.
The group Free Press -- which called on AT&T to allow all of its subscribers to access FaceTime and other competing video chat apps -- threatened to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission.
At the time, AT&T senior vice president Bob Quinn countered by making the questionable statement that net neutrality rules don't regulate "preloaded" apps, only ones that are downloaded.
That statement never made much sense. As Public Knowledge pointed out at the time, the net neutrality rules don't distinguish between apps that are pre-loaded and ones that users download. Instead, the rules “prevent carriers from blocking certain kinds of apps--period," Public Knowledge senior staff attorney John Bergmayer said in a statement.
On Tuesday, Free Press policy director Matt Wood said AT&T's promise to enable the video chat apps on the cellular network was a good step. But, he said, the group still has questions about why AT&T's initial reaction was to block the app for some users. “The open Internet rules are supposed to prevent companies from denying approval for apps that might cut into their revenue,” he says.