AT&T extends FaceTime use over cellular to tiered-data customers

AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) announced it will expand access to Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) FaceTime over cellular to customers on tiered data plans at no additional cost. Previously, the videochatting service was limited to AT&T's iOS users with an AT&T Mobile Share plan or LTE-capable devices.

"When FaceTime over Cellular launched in September 2012, we explained that we wanted to roll it out gradually to ensure the service had minimal impact on the mobile experience for all of our customers," wrote Mark Collins, AT&T senior vice president of data and voice, in a blog post.

The move is important because it expands FaceTime access over a cellular connection to all iOS device users except those grandfathered into an unlimited data plan. AT&T did not reveal when or if users with these plans would be granted access to FaceTime via a cellular connection. Public interest groups have accused AT&T of violating net neutrality rules by limiting which customers can access FaceTime over cellular, charges AT&T has denied. The groups threatened to file a formal complaint with the FCC but have not done so yet.

"We have already begun updating our systems and processes and expect to start rolling the update out to customers on an ongoing basis beginning in the next couple of weeks.  Customers do not need to do anything--the update will be applied automatically over the next few months," explained Collins.

In June, Apple stated that for the first time, handsets running iOS 6 would be able to use FaceTime over a cellular network. Previously FaceTime use was limited to Wi-Fi connectivity.

In August, AT&T announced support for allowing users to access FaceTime via a cellular connection but limited access to its customers with Mobile Share shared data plans. All other customers would be limited to FaceTime over Wi-Fi.

In November, the carrier expanded access to LTE-enabled handsets including the LTE-capable iPhone 5 or an LTE-capable iPad. At the time, AT&T stated it would begin rolling out access to FaceTime to other iOS users within the next eight to 10 weeks.

In response to AT&T's latest move, several public interest groups indicated that they were somewhat mollified, but that they would continue to press for FaceTime over cellular to be available to all eligible AT&T customers. "Even though unlimited plans are no longer available for new customers, AT&T sets itself apart from some of its competitors by allowing its customers who upgrade their phones to keep those plans," said John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge. "However, 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."

"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," said Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press. "We remain ready to bring our complaint unless AT&T finishes the job and stops blocking this application altogether."

For more:
- see this AT&T blog post
- see this TechCrunch article

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