AT&T: We’re Not Violating Net Neutrality by Limiting FaceTime Over Cellular

Published on August 22, 2012
by Ina Fried

AT&T on Wednesday lashed out against critics that say it is violating Net Neutrality rules by limiting which users can access Apple’s FaceTime service over cellular.

“AT&T does not have a similar preloaded video chat app that competes with FaceTime or any other preloaded video chat application,” chief privacy officer Bob Quinn said in a blog post. “Nonetheless, in another knee jerk reaction, some groups have rushed to judgment and claimed that AT&T’s plans will violate the FCC’s net neutrality rules. Those arguments are wrong.”

Until the arrival of iOS 6 this fall, Apple’s video chat has worked only over a Wi-Fi connection. The new operating system, by contrast, will also work over cellular connections, provided the carrier supports it.

AT&T has said it will allow FaceTime over cellular, but only for those with one of its new shared-data plans.

Public Knowledge is among the interest groups that have come out against AT&T’s approach.

“By blocking FaceTime for many of its customers, AT&T is violating the FCC’s Open Internet rules,” John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge, said in a blog post. “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.”

Update, 8:05 am PT: In a statement that followed AT&T’s blog post, consumer group Free Press took issue with the carrier’s defense of its policy.

“AT&T is inventing words that are not in the FCC’s rules in a weak attempt to justify its blocking of FaceTime,” Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner said in a statement. “The FCC’s rules are crystal clear: AT&T is not permitted to block voice or video telephony applications that compete with its own services. There is simply nothing in the rules that distinguishes ‘preloaded’ applications from ‘downloaded’ applications.”

Turner noted that the plans AT&T is requiring customers to have are ones that include unlimited voice minutes.

“FaceTime allows people to reduce their use of voice services, but AT&T is making you buy unlimited voice in order to use FaceTime over mobile,” Turner said. “AT&T is trying to invent a loophole in the rules, but this kind of anti-consumer behavior is the exact thing the FCC’s protections are designed to prohibit.”

One puzzling part of AT&T’s approach is the fact that it is allowing FaceTime on the mobile share plans but not on the stand-alone tiered data plans, which would also charge customers for their FaceTime use. Turner picked up on that as well.

“Furthermore, AT&T’s assertion — that FaceTime is allowed on mobile share plans because the app is data-intensive and those plans are designed to make more data available — is ludicrous and contradicted by the facts,” Turner said. “If that were true, why should current non-mobile share customers that purchase 3GB of data be blocked from using mobile FaceTime, while customers who purchase the 1GB shared data tier are not blocked?”

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