In an article from last week, I asked a simple question: Why, AT&T? Why? This was with regard to their newly announced policy to restrict FaceTime on their network to more expensive plans. Today, we have our answer. AT&T responded to the storm of criticism on their public blog:
Enabling FaceTime Over Our Mobile Broadband Network | AT&T Public Policy Blog
Posted by: Bob Quinn on August 22, 2012 at 8:56 am
Last week, we confirmed plans to make FaceTime available over our mobile broadband network for our AT&T Mobile Share data plan customers.
FaceTime is a video chat application that has been pre-loaded onto every AT&T iPhone since the introduction of iPhone 4. Customers have been using this popular app for several years over Wi-Fi. AT&T does not have a similar preloaded video chat app that competes with FaceTime or any other preloaded video chat application. Nonetheless, in another knee jerk reaction, some groups have rushed to judgment and claimed thatAT&T’s plans will violate the FCC’s net neutrality rules. Those arguments are wrong.
Providers of mobile broadband Internet access service are subject to two net neutrality requirements: (1) a transparency requirement pursuant to which they must disclose accurate information regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of their broadband Internet access services; and (2) a no-blocking requirement under which they are prohibited, subject to reasonable network management, from blocking applications that compete with the provider’s voice or video telephony services.
AT&T’s plans for FaceTime will not violate either requirement. Our policies regarding FaceTime will be fully transparent to all consumers, and no one has argued to the contrary. There is no transparency issue here.
Nor is there a blocking issue. The FCC’s net neutrality rules do not regulate the availability to customers of applications that are preloaded on phones. Indeed, the rules do not require that providers make available anypreloaded apps. Rather, they address whether customers are able to download apps that compete with our voice or video telephony services. AT&T does not restrict customers from downloading any such lawful applications, and there are several video chat apps available in the various app stores serving particular operating systems. (I won’t name any of them for fear that I will be accused by these same groups of discriminating in favor of those apps. But just go to your app store on your device and type “video chat.”) Therefore, there is no net neutrality violation.
Although the rules don’t require it, some preloaded apps are available without charge on phones sold by AT&T, including FaceTime, but subject to some reasonable restrictions. To date, all of the preloaded video chat applications on the phones we sell, including FaceTime, have been limited to Wi-Fi. With the introduction of iOS6, we will extend the availability of the preloaded FaceTime to our mobile broadband network for our Mobile Share data plans which were designed to make more data available to consumers. To be clear, customers will continue to be able to use FaceTime over Wi-Fi irrespective of the data plan they choose. We are broadening our customers’ ability to use the preloaded version of FaceTime but limiting it in this manner to our newly developed AT&T Mobile Share data plans out of an overriding concern for the impact this expansion may have on our network and the overall customer experience.
We will be monitoring the impact the upgrade to this popular preloaded app has on our mobile broadband network, and customers, too, will be in a learning mode as to exactly how much data FaceTime consumes on those usage-based plans. We always strive to provide our customers with the services they desire and will incorporate our learnings from the roll-out of FaceTime on our mobile broadband network into our future service offerings.
The upshot is that AT&T does not believe their network can handle the additional load of video calls. Yes, there are already video chat services that work just fine on AT&T. The reality is that no video chat service is anywhere close to being as potentially disruptive as FaceTime. Apple’s integrated solution is one that people will actually want to use. Having used FaceTime over AT&T’s network, I can attest to the fact that the experience is far better than other solutions. I will use the service every chance I get if for no other reason than superior voice quality. It is the difference between high-definition audio and fifties era telephone audio. FaceTime does not use voice minutes, and the quality is lightyears better. Once people get a taste of FaceTime, they will not want to make a call the old-fashioned way, again. From a competitive perspective, AT&T has a right to be afraid.
However, a right to be afraid is not the same as a legal right to restrict competitive services. The question of legality has been raise by a couple of groups with regards to AT&T’s recent moves. There is some thought that their stated policies about FaceTime run afoul of FCC regulations. Many AT&T customers have gone as far as sign petitions to bring this to the FCC’s attention. Whether or not AT&T’s new policy is legal, it is extremely problematic when their own customers are actively trying to bring down the hammer of government regulators.
In my opinion, there is an even bigger problem. It has to do with AT&T’s attitude about the smartphone platform in general. In their statement, they make it clear that we are lucky that they let us have any built-in apps at all. They believe they are doing us a favor by letting us have mobile Safari. They believe they have the right to charge extra for access to that, and every other app that comes stock on the iPhone. They have completely lost their corporate minds.
I cannot speak for anyone else. But for me, as an AT&T customer, this is a bridge too far. I joined AT&T on the first day of availability of the original iPhone. In the past few years, AT&T has become openly hostile to Apple, the iPhone, and iPhone users. They have used up all of the good will they had built up with me. On September 21: the rumored date for public availability of the next iPhone, I will walk away from my contract and sign up with a competitor. I can only hope that a few million other people will decide to join me.