AT&T’s Facetime Restrictions: More Questions than Answers

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When Apple brings its Facetime video chat service to cellular networks this fall, most AT&T customers won’t be able to use it on the network.

That’s because AT&T will only allow Facetime over cellular for subscribers to the carrier’s “Mobile Share” plans, a new type of data plan that AT&T is launching this week. These plans allow multiple phones, tablets and other devices to share a single pool of data, with unlimited voice minutes and text messages.

(MORE: Running the Numbers on AT&T’s New Shared Data Plans)

Let that sink in for a moment: AT&T is requiring a new type of data plan just to use one specific application on the iPhone or iPad. That’s a shady business for AT&T to get into, and one that raises all sorts of questions about the future of wireless in the United States. Here are some questions that come to mind:

What’s the Fate of Other iPhone Video Chat Apps?

Facetime isn’t the only way to have a video chat over AT&T’s network. Skype, Google+ and countless other voice chat apps also work over 3G, and you don’t even need to wait for iOS 6 to use them. Is AT&T going to crack down on these apps, too? (My guess is no, and that AT&T will only prey on people who don’t realize other options are out there — at least for now.)

When Will Other Operating Systems Get Hit?

Related to the last question, I wonder if — or when — AT&T will try to crack down on video chat for Android or Windows Phones. We know that Windows Phone 8 will have deep integration with Skype, so I imagine AT&T will try to restrict this feature to Mobile Share plans as well. Android may be trickier, since video chat isn’t built as deeply into the operating system. Who wants to bet that AT&T will try to bundle some “exclusive” Mobile Share video chat app into its Android phones?

Is This the Start of App Maker Billing?

Earlier this year, John Donovan, AT&T’s senior executive vice president of network and technology, floated an idea that sounded rather terrifying: Some day, app makers could pay for their users’ data, thereby preventing those users from racking up a big data bill. It’s a scary scenario because it favors the highest bidder over best service, and raises a new hurdle for cash-strapped startups.

I see echoes of that idea in this new plan from AT&T. Imagine if, over time, AT&T turns Mobile Share into a sort of all-you-can-eat service for a select list of apps, each of them paying a cut to the carrier for data consumption. That’s not how it works with Facetime — you’re still liable for any data you use through video chat — but I could see that changing in the future. Creating a separate type of plan with added app benefits is just the beginning.

Is This Even Allowed?

Advocacy groups Free Press and Public Knowledge argue that AT&T is violating the Federal Communications Commissions’ rules on net neutrality, which generally state that all Internet applications should be treated equally. Wireless carriers are exempt from most of these rules, but they’re still not allowed to block applications that compete with their own voice or video services. As The Verge points out, AT&T doesn’t offer a video chat service on the iPhone, so the argument hinges on whether Facetime competes with AT&T’s voice service. The FCC told the New York Times it hasn’t prepared a comment on the matter, but I’m sure we’ll hear more as the fall launch of iOS 6 gets closer.

MORE: AT&T to Introduce Shared Data Plans