AT&T Extends Apple FaceTime to More Users, but Not Everyone

AT&T will soon make FaceTime over Cellular available to tiered-plan users. Critics say AT&T is still in violation of Net Neutrality principles. 

AT&T continues to adjust its stance on Apple's FaceTime video-conferencing application. The carrier prefers to frame its changes as an evolution; critics liken it to more teeth-pulling. Either way, more Apple device users than ever can now use the application.

"As a result of ongoing testing, we're announcing AT&T will enable FaceTime over Cellular at no extra charge for customers with any tiered data plan using a compatible iOS device," Mark Collins, AT&T senior vice president of data and voice products, wrote in a Jan. 16 blog post.

"Previously," Collins continued, "AT&T made FaceTime over Cellular available to customers with a Mobile Share plan and those with an LTE [Long Term Evolution] device on tiered plans."

AT&T has slowly made the free application available to an increasing number of users. Before extending it to those LTE and Mobile Share users, it had tried to keep FaceTime off its cellular network and limited it to use over WiFi.

At each of these stages, consumer advocacy groups Public Knowledge, Free Press and the Open Technology Institute of New America Foundation have pushed back, even threatening to file a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

"A customer who buys a connection from AT&T should be able to use it to access any Website, run any application or communicate with anyone. When consumers buy Internet access, they don't expect their ISP to pick and choose how they can use it," John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge, said in a Jan. 16 blog post titled, "AT&T Almost, But Not Quite, Stops Violating Net Neutrality."

"By limiting its blockage of Apple's FaceTime application, AT&T now allows most of its customers to use their iPhone as they were designed," Bergmayer continued. "It is good that AT&T is reducing this unnecessary and possibly illegal restriction. Unfortunately, it appears this new policy only applies to 'tiered' plans—customers with unlimited data plans are still blocked from accessing FaceTime over their cellular connections."

Matt Wood, policy director of Free Press Policy, in a Jan. 16 statement called AT&T's announcement "another step in the right direction."

But, he added, "As we've made clear all along, the company has no right to block the application in the first place. 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 [to the FCC] unless AT&T finishes the job and stops blocking this application altogether."

In March 2012, AT&T stopped offering its unlimited data plans, but a number of users already with contracts have held on to them. While Verizon Wireless has said that upgrading a phone voids a grandfathered contract, AT&T has allowed users to upgrade, even to the iPhone 5, without losing their unlimited plans.

While AT&T sets itself apart from competitors in this way, wrote Bergmayer, "this does not grant it license to unlawfully prevent those customers from using certain applications—especially given that AT&T 's own testing seems to have shown that FaceTime does not have a significant network impact."

AT&T's Collins, in his blog post, said that as AT&T explained when it launched FaceTime over Cellular in September 2012, "we wanted to roll it out gradually to ensure the service had minimal impact on the mobile experience for all our customers."

Collins added that A&T has begun updating its systems and processes, and customers on tiered plans can expect the update over the next couple of weeks.

"Customers do not need to do anything —the update will be applied automatically over the next few months," he said.

He added that, should anyone care to, you know, use FaceTime over WiFi instead, it "remains available" to anyone with a compatible iPhone or iPad.