Apple's FaceTime, Facebook gang up on operators

editor's corner

AT&T's (NYSE:T) decision to open up FaceTime for no additional charge to subscribers using older Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhones on tiered data plans is a sidebar to the real news, which is that innovative over-the-top offers from brands for which consumers hold great affinity are going to quickly populate the mobile environment.

In a blog entry on Jan. 16, Mark Collins, AT&T senior vice president of data and voice products, wrote, "iPhone 4S customers with tiered plans will be able to make FaceTime calls over the AT&T cellular network. AT&T previously made FaceTime over Cellular available to customers with a Mobile Share plan and those with an LTE device on tiered plans."

He added that FaceTime over Wi-Fi remains available for all customers who have a compatible iPhone or iPad. Yet, it appears AT&T customers with grandfathered unlimited plans are still not going to get free access to FaceTime. At least AT&T's turnabout is good news for some iPhone 4S users.

However, I think the bigger news this week is that Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) just unveiled free VoIP calling over its Messenger application for Apple's iOS users in the United States. (Canadians got the first crack at the feature a couple of weeks ago.) Admittedly, VoIP over wireless is hardly exciting, given the vast number of users already on Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Skype, Rebtel, Fring, Truphone, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Voice, etc.

But a wireless VoIP offering from a company with an active base of more than 167 million users in the United States and 1 billion worldwide should make wireless operators take notice because video chat and beyond will surely be part of Facebook's next social-networking tech initiatives. And, remember, this is Facebook, which has been quite the mobile laggard until recently. The company has the potential to really shake up things if it gets its mobile act together and starts enabling innovative integrated communications based on its social-networking platform.

The prospect of that should shake up carriers. AT&T has contended that when Apple's FaceTime over Cellular launched in September 2012, the operator wanted to roll it out gradually to ensure the service didn't negatively impact its mobile network. Given all of the hiccups caused by early iPhone use on AT&T's largely unprepared 3G networks, I can almost buy the argument that its engineers were afraid robust use of FaceTime might crash AT&T's network.

But if AT&T really is that scared of a little FaceTime use on its network, then it and other mobile operators have a lot to worry about in the days ahead because they surely cannot put the brakes on every new data-hogging over-the-top (OTT) communications app that comes out, particularly if it's offered by a global brand such as Apple, Google or Facebook.

Not only are these types of OTT offerings a threat to existing mobile operator revenue streams, but they also--if one is to believe AT&T's publicly aired concerns--present possible threats to network functionality in terms of generating overwhelming data traffic.

Back in the 1980s, people wanted their MTV. Now they want their YouTube, FaceTime, Pandora, Spotify, Facebook, etc. Telling subscribers that they cannot have what they want or that they'll have to pay extra for specific OTT services likely won't be a successful strategy in the long run. That means operators simply have to learn to deal with these new globally branded OTT services and their customers' demands for access to them.

We're interested in what you think. How successful will VoIP over Facebook Messenger be? Please vote in the poll on our home page.--Tammy

P.S. In observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we will not publish on Monday. Your next issue of FierceBroadbandWireless will arrive on Tuesday, Jan. 22.