AT&T to offer FaceTime over cellular for free - for Mobile Share customers

AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) will not charge customers for using Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) FaceTime video calling feature over cellular connections--if they use the carrier's forthcoming Mobile Share shared data plans. Customers not on Mobile Share will not be able to use FaceTime over cellular but will still be able to access the service via Wi-Fi networks.

The carrier clarified its position on the matter after questions were raised in July over whether it would charge customers for using the service on its cellular network. Consumer advocates and even Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) weighed in on the topic, urging AT&T not to charge for the service. AT&T's Mobile Share plans will be offered starting Aug. 23.

"AT&T will offer FaceTime over Cellular as an added benefit of our new Mobile Share data plans, which were created to meet customers' growing data needs at a great value," the company said in statement. "With Mobile Share, the more data you use, the more you save. FaceTime will continue to be available over Wi-Fi for all our customers."

The decision is sure to raise hackles with customer advocates as well as net neutrality concerns. The move appears aimed at limiting the amount of bandwidth used by AT&T's grandfathered unlimited data customers. Indeed, public interest groups Free Press and Public Knowledge said that AT&T would be violating net neutrality rules against blocking mobile applications with the new policy.

"By blocking FaceTime for many of its customers, AT&T is violating the FCC's Open Internet rules," John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "These rules state that mobile providers shall not 'block applications that compete with the provider's voice or video telephony services.' Although carriers are permitted to engage in 'reasonable network management,' there is no technical reason why one data plan should be able to access FaceTime, and another not."

AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel told FierceWireless the company is not violating net neutrality rules. "FaceTime is available to all of our customers today over Wi-Fi and we're now expanding its availability even further as an added benefit of our new Mobile Share data plans," he said.

An FCC spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The FCC's net neutrality rules for wireless are weaker in many respects than they are for wireline networks.

Meanwhile, the company's Mobile Share plans are in some cases more expensive than its usage-based data pricing. Under AT&T's existing usage-based pricing it charges $20 per month for 300 MB, $30 for 3 GB and $50 for 5 GB.

Here's a breakdown of AT&T's Mobile Share plans:

  • $40 per month: 1 GB of shared data (each smartphone costs $45 per month)
  • $70 per month: 4 GB of shared data (each smartphone costs $40 per month)
  • $90 per month: 6 GB of shared data (each smartphone costs $35 per month)
  • $120 per month: 10 GB of shared data (each smartphone costs $30 per month)
  • $160 per month: 15 GB of shared data (each smartphone costs $30 per month)
  • $200 per month: 20 GB of shared data (each smartphone costs $30 per month)

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said in July it was "too early to talk about pricing" for FaceTime over cellular networks. The feature will be enabled on iPhones and iPads with the release of Apple's iOS 6 software.

The blog 9to5Mac had posted an error message that appeared using iOS 6 beta 3 software that asked users to contact AT&T to enable FaceTime over cellular, which some took to be an indication that AT&T planned to charge for the service. Up until now all FaceTime calls have been made over Wi-Fi connections and are free.

AT&T possibly charging for FaceTime over cellular does have some precedent: The carrier charges an extra fee for iPhone tethering. According to AT&T's data usage calculator, 10 minutes of video streaming per day equates to 0.59 GB of data per month.

For more:
- see this The Verge article
- see this Engadget article
- see this The Hill article
- see this separate The Verge article

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