AT&T and FaceTime: Still Restricted, Only Less So

AT&T is slowly allowing more iPhone and iPad owners to use FaceTime for video chat over its network, but many users will remain shut out for the time being.

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AT&T is slowly allowing more iPhone and iPad owners to use FaceTime for video chat over its network, but many users will remain shut out for the time being.

When Apple enabled its FaceTime video chat service over cellular networks in iOS 6, AT&T limited the service to users of Mobile Share data plans. Those plans, which launched in August, let subscribers share a single pool of data across multiple phones, tablets, hotspots and other devices.

Over the next eight to ten weeks, subscribers with regular tiered data plans on LTE devices —    that is, an iPhone 5 or a third-generation or higher iPad — will be able to use FaceTime over cellular as well. For those users, FaceTime will work over LTE, HSPA+ and regular 3G networks, as well as Wi-Fi. If you have an unlimited data plan, or an older iPhone or iPad, you’ll only be able to use FaceTime over Wi-Fi for now.

Jim Cicconi, AT&T”s Senior Executive Vice President of External and Legislative Affairs, argued in a blog post that the carrier has to limit the flow of new FaceTime users on its network, or else voice calls and other services may suffer. He pointed out that AT&T has more iPhones on its network than any other carrier, and because FaceTime is already preloaded on the iPhone 4 and up, there was no way to be sure that video chat wouldn’t weigh down the network.

The argument sounds good, but as Karl Bode at DSL Reports points out, AT&T often relies on congestion as an excuse for its policies, yet it never provides data to back up those assertions. The fact that AT&T is lifting FaceTime restrictions in order of what’s the most lucrative — first Mobile Share, then regular tiered data plans, then maybe grandfathered unlimited plans in the future — suggests that caution isn’t the carrier’s only motivation.

So it’s good to hear that Free Press, which along with other advocacy groups had threatened to file an FCC complaint against AT&T, will still do so if the carrier doesn’t quickly make FaceTime over cellular available to all customers. Free Press, Public Knowledge and New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute have argued that AT&T’s FaceTime restrictions violate the government’s Net Neutrality principles, which prevent wireless carriers from blocking apps that compete with their own voice services.

AT&T had argued that the rules don’t apply to pre-loaded apps such as FaceTime, but it’s unclear whether that argument would hold up in an official complaint to the FCC. In any case, the carrier doesn’t seem eager to test its theory, given that it’s loosening its restrictions.

If AT&T is still stopping you from using FaceTime over cellular, there are other options. Third-party video chat apps such as Skype, Google+ Hangouts and Tango all work over cellular networks, and unlike FaceTime, they work across platforms, so you can chat with Android phone users as well. Or, you can switch to Verizon or Sprint, which have no limitations on FaceTime whatsoever.