AT&T: FaceTime data plan restrictions do not violate net neutrality

AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) defended its decision to offer Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) FaceTime video calling feature over cellular at no extra charge only to its Mobile Share data plan customers, arguing that such a move does not violate the FCC's net neutrality rules.

AT&T's disclosure late last week about its plans for FaceTime over cellular, which will be allowed on iOS 6 software, caused a furor over whether such a strategy is against the FCC's Open Internet rules. Public interest groups, including Public Knowledge and Free Press, have accused the carrier of essentially discriminating against certain kinds of customers. Prior to iOS 6 FaceTime was only available on Wi-Fi--and it will remain free on Wi-Fi, AT&T has said.

In a company blog post, Bob Quinn, AT&T's senior vice president of federal regulatory, noted that wireless carriers are subject to transparency and no-blocking rules via net neutrality. He said AT&T has been transparent in its actions and said there is not a blocking issue either.

"The FCC's net neutrality rules do not regulate the availability to customers of applications that are preloaded on phones," he wrote. "Indeed, the rules do not require that providers make available any preloaded apps. Rather, they address whether customers are able to download apps that compete with our voice or video telephony services. AT&T does not restrict customers from downloading any such lawful applications, and there are several video chat apps available in the various app stores serving particular operating systems."

The comment could potentially have implications for other preloaded apps such as Google Talk and Skype, as The Verge notes. Quinn wrote that "all of the preloaded video chat applications on the phones we sell, including FaceTime, have been limited to Wi-Fi."

However, Quinn also noted that AT&T is limiting who can use FaceTime over cellular to protect its network.

"We are broadening our customers' ability to use the preloaded version of FaceTime but limiting it in this manner to our newly developed AT&T Mobile Share data plans out of an overriding concern for the impact this expansion may have on our network and the overall customer experience," he said. However, AT&T's usage-based data plans--separate from AT&T's Mobile Share plans--were designed to inhibit high data usage.

Free Press has urged consumers to sign a petition to the FCC to draw attention to the move and what the group claims is AT&T's violation of net neutrality. Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner blasted Quinn's blog post in a statement.

"There is simply nothing in the rules that distinguishes 'preloaded' applications from 'downloaded' applications," he said. "It is interesting to see AT&T try this line of defense, as it is tacitly admitting that it is both blocking FaceTime and that the app does in fact compete with its own offerings. FaceTime allows people to reduce their use of voice services, but AT&T is making you buy unlimited voice in order to use FaceTime over mobile."

"Furthermore, AT&T's assertion--that FaceTime is allowed on mobile share plans because the app is data-intensive and those plans are designed to make more data available --is ludicrous and contradicted by the facts," he added.  "If that were true, why should current non-mobile share customers that purchase 3 GB of data be blocked from using mobile FaceTime, while customers who purchase the 1 GB shared data tier are not blocked?"

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

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