AT&T caves, opens FaceTime over cellular for more customers

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AT&T has backed down and agreed to make Apple’s video calling service, FaceTime, available over cellular networks to more of its customers, not just those who subscribed to a certain type of data plan. The service will roll out to customers subscribed to a tiered data plan who own an LTE-capable iPhone running iOS 6 in eight to ten weeks, the carrier said Thursday in a press release.

FaceTime has always been available to any subscriber for use over a Wi-Fi connection, but the carrier had come under fire this summer when Apple enabled it for cell networks and AT&T said only customers who subscribed to a new Mobile Share plan could use it. Several open internet groups threatened to file complaints with the FCC, saying AT&T’s action was a violation of net neutrality.

AT&T had initially argued that it wasn’t violating net neutrality; that it wasn’t blocking the use of the FaceTime app technically because any iPhone customer could still use it over Wi-Fi. It said it was simply “allowing more data access.”

A note from AT&T’s head of legislative affairs, Jim Cicconi, on the company’s policy blog explained the change of heart. He said the carrier was being “cautious” when Apple first released iOS 6 with the ability to make FaceTime calls over cellular because of an anticipated overload of activity on its cellular network:

“In this instance, with the FaceTime app already preloaded on tens of millions of AT&T customers’ iPhones, there was no way for our engineers to effectively model usage, and thus to assess network impact. It is for this reason that we took a more cautious approach toward the app. To do otherwise might have risked an adverse impact on the services our customers expect — voice quality in particular — if usage of FaceTime exceeded expectations.  And this is important for all our customers regardless of which smartphone they may use.”

The company’s reversal won it halting praise from one of the groups that had opposed AT&T’s previous policy. “AT&T simply can’t justify blocking an app that competes with its voice and texting services unless customers purchase a more expensive monthly plan that includes an unlimited amount of those very same services,” Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood said in a statement. “AT&T’s course correction is a move in the right direction, but until the company makes FaceTime available to all of its customers it is still in violation of the FCC’s rules and the broader principles of Net Neutrality.”

Also on Thursday, AT&T said that deaf and hard of hearing customers with text and data-only customers would also be able to use FaceTime.

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