AT&T has announced that in the next eight to 10 weeks it will support the use of Apple's FaceTime video-conferencing application by subscribers with devices running Apple's iOS 6 on a Long Term Evolution (LTE) device, whether those customers are on tiered data pricing plans or AT&T Mobile Share plans.
The gesture is a reversal of AT&T's previous policies, which first restrained Facetime to WiFi and then extended it to Cellular, but only to customers who had made the switch to AT&T's Mobile Share plans.
These earlier policies were aggressively criticized by consumer-interest groups the Free Press, the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute and Public Knowledge, which together warned AT&T that they would report it to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) if its practices weren't changed.
The Free Press applauded AT&T's latest change in policy but added that the carrier couldn't stop there.
"The law is clear. AT&T cannot block FaceTime based on claims of potential congestion. There’s nothing even remotely reasonable about that approach. AT&T simply can’t justify blocking an app that competes with its voice and texting services unless customers purchase a more expensive monthly plan that includes an unlimited amount of those very same services," Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood said a Nov. 8 statement.
"AT&T's course correction is a move in the right direction, but until the company makes FaceTime available to all of its customers, it is still in violation of the FCC's rules and the broader principles of Net Neutrality," Wood added.
John Bergmayer, a senior staff attorney with Public Knowledge, has written that AT&T's FaceTime policies pressure subscribers to pay more than they need to.
"Subscribers pay for their data connections, and that's enough. AT&T is trying to engage in exactly the kind of 'double-dipping' that the Open Internet rules were meant to prohibit, to get people to buy voice minutes and text plans they don't need, and to discourage people from using apps it doesn't approve of," Bergmayer, wrote in a Sept. 18 blog post.
The same day, the three nonprofits wrote to AT&T, asking that it reconsider the policy and the impact that blocking FaceTime has on customers—particularly the deaf and hard of hearing, who can use Sign Language over FaceTime.
"Making mobile use of the application available only to those customers who pay for unlimited voice and text messages harms individuals and innovation alike," stated the joint letter. "We ask instead that AT&T make this core feature of the popular iPhone and iPad devices available to all of its customers, in compliance with the Open Internet rules that 'preserve the Internet as an open platform enabling consumer choice, freedom of expression, end-user control, competition and the freedom to innovate without permission.'"
AT&T, in its Nov. 8 statement, said it has a "commitment to serving customers with disabilities," and is "also making FaceTime over Cellular available to deaf and hard-of-hearing customers who qualify for special text and data-only packages."
It also added that it has more customers using iPhones than any other U.S. carrier.
The Open Internet is the FCC's policy for ensuring that "every American has access to open and robust high-speed Internet service."
The policy has three main tenets: transparency, no blocking and no unreasonable discrimination. The first insists that broadband providers disclose information about their network management practices, performance and the terms of their services. The second prevents broadband providers from blocking content that may compete with their own apps or services, and the third forbids providers from discriminating against legal network traffic, by means such as slowing down the transfer.
"Once you're online, you don't have to ask permission or pay tolls to broadband providers to reach others on the network," the FCC has written. "... The purpose of the Open Internet rules is to clarify high-level, flexible rules of the road for broadband to ensure that no one—not the government and not the companies that provide broadband service—can restrict innovation on the Internet."