Advocates File Net Neutrality Complaint Over AT&T's FaceTime Policy

Last month, AT&T confirmed that iPhone customers who want to use the iPhone’s FaceTime video chat app over a cellular connection would need to belong to one of the company’s new shared data plans. At the time, several advocates raised concerns about whether or not this requirement violated the FCC’s Open Internet rules, and now these same groups have moved to file an actual complaint with regulators.

In a letter, written by reps for Public Knowledge, Free Press, and the Open Technology Institute, to AT&T’s general counsel, the advocates claim that AT&T’s requirement is in violation of FCC rules that make it illegal for a provider to block apps that compete with that provider’s voice or video telephony services.

From the letter:

We respectfully request that AT&T reconsider its behavior and the impact that blocking FaceTime will have on its customers, particularly the deaf and hard of hearing, as well as all who use this application to communicate with family and friends over the Internet. Making mobile use of the application available only to those customers who pay for unlimited voice and text messages harms individuals and innovation alike. We ask instead that AT&T make this core feature of the popular iPhone and iPad devices available to all of its customers, in compliance with the Open Internet rules that “preserve the Internet as an open platform enabling consumer choice, freedom of expression, end-user control, competition, and the freedom to innovate without permission.”

We’ve asked AT&T for an updated statement, and will add it here if they respond.

But when these objections were first raised, AT&T claimed it was not blocking the app because all customers are allowed to download it. The Death Star also defended the action by saying, “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.”

If it gets to the point where AT&T needs to defend itself against these allegations, we expect they will also claim that the FaceTime app does not directly compete with its voice service, as it only works with certain devices. Also, AT&T will likely say that since it does not place any of its video telephony services on iPhones, there is no competition concern there either.

However, as I pointed out at the time — allowing AT&T to decide that only certain tiers of customers could have unfettered access to some apps may not be in violation of the Open Internet rules, but it most certainly will be the thin edge of the wedge that leads to a wireless industry where access to apps depends on your data plan.

Just because something might follow the letter of the law doesn’t mean it isn’t bad for consumers.


Edit Your Comment

  1. dush says:

    “limiting it in this manner … out of an overriding concern for the impact this expansion may have on our network and the overall customer experience.”

    Our network can’t handle it so we’re blocking your facetime.

    • JollySith says:

      Exactly, all the desire for fairness and equality in the world can’t change the hard reality that the infrastructure isn’t there

      • Chuft-Captain says:

        If only millions of people were paying AT&T billions and billions of dollars a month precisely to provide service, maintain, and upgrade their network. Alomost $7.75B/mo if you use a fairly conservative per-customer average like $75 across their ~103 million subscribers.

        Unfortunately, people are in fact paying AT&T billions and billiosn each month so that the execs can take baths in olympic swimming pools filled with flaming $20 bills.

        • JollySith says:

          Yes none of the money goes towards paying their expenses, the salaries of the 275,000 people who they employ with good jobs, maintaining their existing infrastructure, (slowly) creating new infrastructure, or providing service to their employees. It all goes to some deranged fantasy version of Scrooge McDuck that is in your head.

          Are the top 1% at AT&T overcompensated? Possibly, even probably. But take all their salaries combined and you would have about 10% of the funds they need to provide the kind of infrastructure they need.

    • TuxthePenguin says:

      Or just set it so no one has unlimited data anymore (granted, that’d hit me since I’m still grandfathered) and have everyone’s cycle start at staggered intervals. That way as people run out of data, Facetime usage drops (since it would consume data like crazy).

      Then again… I bet they couldn’t handle that.

    • Blueskylaw says:

      Since the companies know that bandwith is “stressed”, they know they are creating an artificial shortage when they keep coming out with faster phones and more features. This allows them not to invest in expanding the network infrastructure, charge greater fees due to “limited resources”, and reap the rewards in the form of unearned bonuses and salary.

  2. jsodano says:

    Ok, I think AT&T is being smarmy here – but “won’t someone think of the hearing impaired” is pretty weak too. It was one thing when AT&T was the exclusive US iPhone carrier – but now, people have the option of voting with their checkbooks. Verizon and/or Sprint would be happy to have the business.

  3. TheSpatulaOfLove says:

    …And this is the reason why I jailbreak. AT&T has blocked features for iPhone users that they have allowed for other smartphone users on their network. I pay a $30 premium for my ‘unlimited, yet throttled’ data, but never get to use it to its fullest potential.

    Since jailbreaking, I can now tether the 4 or 5 times a year I have to for work purposes (usually never more than an hour), I can Facetime over cellular when I want to show my wife something we’re considering buying (this came in handy when I was buying a van for her, but she couldn’t come with me.)…

    So screw you, AT&T. I hope they fine the crap out of you for playing this game.

  4. Abradax says:

    It only affects their network when someone uses a product that they were sold by AT&T that is no longer offered because AT&T wants to pad their books.

    It stops magically affecting their network the second someone who pays more for data uses the product.

  5. petermv says:

    Right, because the mobile data plan uses bits that are more streamlined and thus are easier to pass through the network, while those using regular data plans have bits that are more chunky and rough sided thereby slowing down everyone else’s data.

    When companies come up with these blatantly untrue responses, do you think that they truly believe we are all idiots? Then again Corporate America seems to have the same aversion to the truth as politicians, with Republicans being the hands down winner at the moment.

  6. DoctorDawg says:

    I disagree with AT&T blocking or throttling anything, but you people using FaceTime, for sanity’s sake, GET A ROOM! Nobody in the hotel lobby or airline gate area or Starbucks want to hear you blabber on while your significant other in his/her jammies makes winky-eyes at you on your phone or tablet.

    Especially in public internet areas, STOP HOGGING ALL THE BANDWIDTH just to jibber-jabber with your hair-in-curlers spouse.

  7. luxosaucer13 says:

    I wonder if there is the same restriction on an app called Tango, which does the same thing as FaceTime. If there isn’t, downloading Tango would seem to be an appropriate workaround until AT&T gets their fair share of smackdown.

    Plus, with Tango, iPhone users can video chat with their Android brethren, or is such a thing verboten?

  8. Press1forDialTone says:

    Anybody remember when AT&T/Bell System wanted -everyone- to use video
    phones in the early 1960’s? They should be embracing this with a bear hug and
    spend the whole company’s coffers building out their capacity. Boeing spent the
    company broke to bring out the 747 and gee that worked out REALLY WELL.
    AT&T is a big pussy now and won’t see where things are headed socially and
    not capitalize on it. As much as I hate to promote fascism, Apple did this and
    won big, BUT the IPhone has some real nasty changes (see Cnet’s review) like
    the -single- plug on it is different that what you have now and your cables won’t
    work without adapters and even then some accessories won’t electrically work
    because they are compatible. Bam! The ghost of Steve Jobs ramming you in the butt
    once again!