Google’s New Hangouts App Has an AT&T Caveat

When Google announced its new Hangouts app on Wednesday, it didn't mention an exception for AT&T customers: the app's free video calling won't work on AT&T's network.

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Jared Newman /

When Google announced its new Hangouts app on Wednesday, it didn’t mention an exception for AT&T customers: the app’s free video calling won’t work on AT&T’s network.

To use Hangout video chat on an AT&T Android phone, you must be connected to Wi-Fi.

Apparently, AT&T is falling back on the same excuse it used to restrict the use of Facetime video chat¬†on the iPhone last year. AT&T believes that if a video chat app is pre-installed on a phone, the carrier can block it without running afoul of net neutrality rules. (The FCC says wireless carriers aren’t allowed to block apps that compete with the carriers’ own voice offerings.)

For that reason, Hangout video chat is not barred from AT&T’s network on the iPhone. On Android, Google+ video chat works fine, because the Google+ app is not pre-installed. On my HTC One, I was also able to receive a pair of chat invitations from my editor Doug Aamoth–one from Google Chat on his desktop, and one from Google+ Hangouts.

In a statement to the press, AT&T reiterated its earlier claim that it can block video chat on pre-installed apps. But it also suggested that the ball is in Google’s court to make the app work over cellular:

For video chat apps that come pre-loaded on devices, we offer all OS and device makers the ability for those apps to work over cellular for our customers who are on Mobile Share, Tiered and soon Unlimited plan customers who have LTE devices. It’s up to each OS and device makers to enable their systems to allow pre-loaded video chat apps to work over cellular for our customers on those plans.

Unfortunately, this statement doesn’t offer much clarity. I’m not sure, for instance, if Google can enable Hangout video chat and have it work across all Android devices, or if phone makers like Samsung and HTC will also have to get involved. For that matter, what does “enable their systems” even mean, and why wouldn’t an OS or device maker just enable video chat on all kinds of data plans? What sort of interference does AT&T run during the process?

This is exactly the kind of restriction that proves the need for tougher net neutrality rules on wireless networks. AT&T claims that it needs to restrict video chat apps to spare its network from congestion, but that argument doesn’t hold up given the number of downloadable video chat apps already available, plus the fact that Facetime works just fine for users with Mobile Share and tiered data plans. If data hogs were going to crash the network with video chat, they’d do it with or without pre-installed apps.

It’ll be interesting to see the response from advocacy groups like Free Press, which had threatened to file an FCC complaint over AT&T’s Facetime restrictions in the past. AT&T still blocks Facetime over unlimited plans, but Free Press and other groups still haven’t filed a formal complaint. Perhaps this move will change their minds.