AT&T has never been a fan of FaceTime, Apple’s nifty video conferencing app for the iPhone. Fearing that it would clog its network, Ma Bell at first wouldn’t let any of its customers use it via a cellular connection -- it was only kosher via Wi-Fi.
Under pressure from consumer advocates, the company has gradually backed off that unfair position and is slowly letting more and more customers use FaceTime over cellular. Earlier this week the company said that pretty much anybody – with the exception of one group – can use FaceTime however they want.
Earlier this week, AT&T said in a blog post that it was letting customers with its tiered, limited data plans use FaceTime over the network. Previously, only customers on the newer -- sometimes more expensive -- shared data plans were allowed to do so. Even customers using older iPhones that aren’t 4G-capable are eligible, though the quality video calls over 3G will probably be fairly poor.
So who’s left out? Folks who are still on the old unlimited data plans. Until they switch to a tiered plan, they’re stuck with using FaceTime over Wi-Fi. (Verizon Wireless does not stop any customers from using FaceTime on its cellular network.)
There’s a larger point here. The FCC has mandated a policy called Net Neutrality, which says that carriers may not discriminate against content or types of data that someone wants to move over their networks. By restricting the use of FaceTime on its network, consumer advocates argue that Ma Bell is violating that principle.
Free Press, one of the nonprofit groups criticizing AT&T, said the carrier’s latest move was a good step but still not enough.
"As we've made clear all along, the company has no right to block the application in the first place," said Matt Wood, policy director of Free Press. "Until AT&T makes FaceTime available to all of its customers, it is still in violation of the law and the broader principles of Net Neutrality. We remain ready to bring our complaint unless AT&T finishes the job and stops blocking this application altogether."
To better understand Net Neutrality, think of yourself as, for example, a Comcast customer. Comcast owns NBC, which competes with CBS. Without Net Neutrality, Comcast could charge you more – or even block you – if you choose to download programming from CBS. Or suppose Comcast went into the music business and said you can no longer download songs unless they were in a proprietary format not shared by iTunes.
Sure, those are extreme and unlikely examples, but in principle not allowing some customers to use Apple's FaceTime is no different.
AT&T is understandably concerned about the effect of data-gulping video on its network. But since customers who are still on unlimited plans (new customers can not sign up for them) are paying to use the network, AT&T has no right to tell them what applications they may use. It's that simple.