Apple adds cellular data support for FaceTime video chatting

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) said that for the first time iPhone and iPad users who use its new iOS 6 software will be able to make video calls using its FaceTime service over cellular data connections. Previously, FaceTime had been limited to Wi-Fi connectivity.

Apple said iOS users will be able to make FaceTime calls over cellular networks.

Apple noted that FaceTime over a cellular network requires iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S, or an iPad 2 or third-generation iPad with cellular data capability. The company also noted that carrier data charges may apply when using the service.

Wireless carriers provided little in the way of feedback on the announcement. AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) said it is "working closely with Apple on features announced for iOS 6 and we'll share more information with our customers as we get closer to launch."

Meanwhile, a Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) spokeswoman referred questions to Apple and a Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a  request for comment.

Apple announced its FaceTime video calling service in conjunction with the launch of the iPhone 4 on June 7, 2010. Just five days before that, AT&T announced it would discontinue its unlimited smartphone data service in favor of a tiered pricing scenario where users were billed for the data they consumed. Since then Verizon has moved to usage-based data pricing for smartphone customers, though Sprint maintains unlimited smartphone data plans.

According to AT&T's data usage calculator, 10 minutes of video streaming per day equates to 0.59 GB of data per month. AT&T charges $20 per month for 300 MB, $30 for 3 GB and $50 per 5 GB. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has repeatedly said that his company needs more wireless spectrum to handle data traffic or will be forced to raise prices.

Verizon's data usage calculator shows that 10 minutes of video streaming per day equates to 1.22 GB per month of data usage for 3G and LTE smartphones. Verizon charges $30 per month for 2 GB, $50 for 5 GB and $80 for 10 GB.

"I'm not sure that this decision was a joint decision by Apple and AT&T," said BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk. "From AT&T's standpoint, they do have data caps in place." But, he added: "I don't think that AT&T called up Apple and said, 'We're fine with FaceTime over 3G.'"

Piecyk said that in the past Apple may have agreed to keep FaceTime off 3G networks to ease the amount of data traffic flowing through its carrier partners' pipes. Or, he said, Apple may have been worried about the quality of experience for users. Still, he wondered: "Why is 3G better today than it was a year ago?"

"Maybe this is yet another sign that the relationship between carriers and Apple is getting more strained," Piecyk added.

For more:
- see this FierceMobileContent story on iOS 6
- see this Apple page
- see this The Verge article

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Article updated June 11 with comment from AT&T.