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AT&T's Questionable Restriction for FaceTime over 3G

September 6, 2012 | David S. Maldow, Esq.
Facetime_on_iPad_iPhone.jpg AT&T's recent announcement about enabling FaceTime over their 3G network has upset a lot of people. It was sort of a "good news / bad news" announcement from the user's perspective. The good news is that AT&T will not be charging extra for using FaceTime over its mobile network. The bad news is that this capability will be restricted to people with new, more expensive, AT&T data plans.

FaceTime is Apple's "built-in" mobile videoconferencing app. Due to its great quality and native integration with Apple devices, it has become a favorite for iPhone and iPad users. FaceTime's main weaknesses are the fact that it is a closed system (FaceTime users can only call other FaceTime users) and that it only works over Wi-Fi. Great for calling home from my office, but it won't let me call my wife from the grocery store to show her the butcher's specials. Users have long been clamoring for 3G support (which will become possible when Apple releases iOS 6 this fall), although some feared the service providers would charge extra for this feature. 

Facetime_on_iPhone4.jpgWhile AT&T will not technically charge extra for using FaceTime over 3G or 4G, they are limiting the feature to users subscribing to a new "Mobile Share" data plan. These new plans are more expensive, but they include unlimited talk / text and allow you to share data usage (1GB to 20GB depending on which plan) between devices. These plans may be a good deal, but many users are perfectly happy with their existing plans and would get no benefit from upgrading to a "Mobile Share" plan. When these users upgrade to iOS 6, they will want a good explanation for why FaceTime does not work with their existing AT&T data plan.

Textbox_ATT_Support_iPhone.jpgKeep in mind, most iPhone owners simply signed up AT&T (or Verizon) to support their phone choice. These aren't AT&T data customers who happen to use an iPhone. These are iPhone owners who happen to use AT&T to support their iPhone. The only reason they signed a contract with AT&T in the first place was to use their iPhone. If the plan they signed with AT&T will not cover all of the new iPhone features coming in iOS 6, they will be understandably upset. In the simplest of terms, any AT&T data plan that is sold hand-in-hand with an iPhone should support all of that iPhone's (current and future) features.

Some have claimed that this move may violate FCC net neutrality rules, which forbid carriers from blocking services that compete with their own. AT&T denies that they are blocking anything, as FaceTime is still available to all users via Wi-Fi, and states that they are just expanding FaceTime's availability by offering it to "Mobile Share" users. However, the fact remains that some iPhone users will not be able to use an inherent iPhone feature on their AT&T data plan when iOS 6 rolls out. What if AT&T decided that the iPhone's Calendar will only sync over 3G for new "Mobile Share" account holders? Or if the iPhone's integrated Twitter app would only work over 3G for certain types of data plans? Unless AT&T can clearly explain a logical distinction between the iPhone's impending FaceTime over 3G feature, and every other iPhone 3G feature (all of which are fully supported on all data plans), they should offer it unconditionally to all of their data plan subscribers.

About the Author
David_Maldow, Esq.David Maldow, Esq. is a visual collaboration technologist and analyst with the Human Productivity Lab and an associate editor at Telepresence Options. David has extensive expertise in testing, evaluating, and explaining telepresence and other visual collaboration / rich media solutions. David is focused on providing third-party independent analysis and opinion of these technologies and helping end users better secure their telepresence, videoconferencing, and visual collaboration environments. You can follow David on Twitter and Google+.

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