AT&T expands access to FaceTime over cellular - but not to all customers

Customers must have an LTE-capable Apple device
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AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) said it will offer Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) FaceTime video calling feature over cellular at no extra charge to customers using LTE devices. For example, iPhone 5 customers without Mobile Share data plans will soon be able to use the service without an extra fee.

The change expands the number of customers who can use FaceTime over cellular but the offer does not extend the service to customers that do not have the LTE-capable iPhone 5 or an LTE-capable iPad. AT&T said it will expand the functionality to non-Mobile Share data plan customers in the next eight to 10 weeks. AT&T sold 1.3 million iPhone 5 devices in the third quarter.

In August, AT&T announced that it would allow FaceTime over cellular only for its Mobile Share data plan customers.  That decision caused a furor over whether AT&T's strategy was counter to net neutrality. FaceTime over cellular is enabled on Apple devices running iOS 6 software. Prior to iOS 6, FaceTime was only available on Wi-Fi--and it will remain free on Wi-Fi, AT&T has said. AT&T's stance drew a sharp rebuke from public interest groups Free Press, Public Knowledge and the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, which said they were considering filing a formal complaint with the FCC over the move.

In a company blog post,  Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, wrote that AT&T decided to only offer FaceTime over cellular to Mobile Share customers because it has the most iPhones of any carrier and was uncertain about the impact on its network from the newly available service.

"In this instance, with the FaceTime app already preloaded on tens of millions of AT&T customers' iPhones, there was no way for our engineers to effectively model usage, and thus to assess network impact. It is for this reason that we took a more cautious approach toward the app. To do otherwise might have risked an adverse impact on the services our customers expect--voice quality in particular--if usage of FaceTime exceeded expectations. And this is important for all our customers regardless of which smartphone they may use."

Cicconi said that the company will continue to gather and access the network data on this issue over the next few months and hinted that it will be able to expand the availability of FaceTime to customers on other billing plans in the near future. 

"Our primary goal all along has been to bring a swift end to AT&T's practices that harm consumers, competition and innovation," John Bergmayer, senior staff attoney at Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "An FCC complaint offers a path to a positive resolution for consumers, but it's a path with an uncertain timeline. So we are willing to wait and see if AT&T will follow through with its promise to end its illegal practices in short order. We still intend to pursue legal action against AT&T if it doesn't make FaceTime available to all of its customers quickly."

For more:
- see this release
- see this AT&T blog post
- see this The Verge article

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