AT&T FaceTime Policy Could Open Door To Carriers Restricting Which Customers Can Use Certain Apps

Late last week, AT&T confirmed that while iPhone users will be able to use the FaceTime video chat app over its 3G and 4G networks, customers would have to subscribe to one of the company’s new Mobile Share plans. This has obviously not been sitting well with critics who say its a violation of FCC Open Internet rules, and AT&T has attempted to explain its position on the matter. But the Death Star’s explanation only gives us more cause for concern.

When the Mobile Share requirement was first revealed, groups like Public Knowledge claimed that the policy violates the stipulation in the FCC’s Open Internet rules that reads:

*No blocking… Mobile broadband providers may not block lawful websites, or applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services.

But in a post on the AT&T Public Policy Blog, a company hack refers to this claim as a “knee jerk reaction.”

The post explains why AT&T believes that no such blocking is going on:

The FCC’s net neutrality rules do not regulate the availability to customers of applications that are preloaded on phones. 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. (I won’t name any of them for fear that I will be accused by these same groups of discriminating in favor of those apps. But just go to your app store on your device and type “video chat.”) Therefore, there is no net neutrality violation….

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.

Some, like The Verge’s Chris Ziegler, argue that because FaceTime won’t be considered my many people to be a competitor for AT&T’s voice business, and since AT&T doesn’t offer a native wireless video chat service of its own, the Death Star could make a good argument to the FCC types who would actually determine whether or not this violates the Open Internet rules.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with AT&T, if it’s successful in limiting the use of wireless Facetime to a certain class of customers, I worry that it will open the floodgates for the carrier — and its competitors — to begin placing other apps in certain tiers.

What’s to stop AT&T or Verizon from announcing a few months from now that if you want to use Netflix over wireless, you’ll have to subscribe to a certain level or type of service? Or suddenly there are two versions of an app being made available — a free-to-use one that only works via WiFi and one that requires some sort of additional payment if you wish to use it over a 4G wireless network?

This wouldn’t be terribly different from AT&T’s intentions to eventually dump some of the costs for data-hogging apps off on anyone that isn’t AT&T.

Hopefully, what little competition that remains in the industry will help to rein in this sort of behavior. So far, the other iPhone carriers have either said nothing about FaceTime or have confirmed they will not charge extra or push customers into an undesired service tier just to use FaceTime.

After all, AT&T CEO Darth Stephenson has already said how much he regrets going into the original iPhone launch offering unlimited wireless data plans. But smaller companies like Sprint and T-Mobile have refused to follow suit with tiered plans and user their unlimited offerings as positive marketing points.

So could tiered app usage packages — not unlike tiered cable packages — be the future battleground for wireless competitors? Perhaps we’ll see Sprint running ads that tell customers to go ahead and FaceTime all they want.

Or maybe AT&T will drop this idea altogether… And I might win the lottery.