AT&T caves in over FaceTime access

Following pressure from consumer groups, AT&T has made an abrupt about-face and opened up FaceTime video calling to Apple users on any tiered data plan.

Until the launch of the latest version of iOS, FaceTime worked only on Wifi. But although the new version allowed faceTime over cellular, AT&T restricted use of the app to customers on its premium Mobile Shared plans.

Public Knowledge, Free Press and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute had all complained to the FCC over the company’s policy, saying it forced customers to pay AT&T for an Apple-developed application that should have been free to use.

The company now, though, plans to open cellular access to any customers with a 4G device – meaning the iPhone 5 and top-end versions of the iPad. It will exptend this further in future, it says.

“As part of its commitment to serving customers with disabilities, AT&T is also making FaceTime over Cellular available to deaf and hard of hearing customers who qualify for special text and data-only packages,” it adds.

The company plans to roll the feature out over the next eight to ten weeks.

AT&T continues to justify its previous stance.

“With the FaceTime app already preloaded on tens of millions of AT&T customers’ iPhones, there was no way for our engineers to effectively model usage, and thus to assess network impact,” says senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs Jim Cicconi.

“It is for this reason that we took a more cautious approach toward the app. To do otherwise might have risked an adverse impact on the services our customers expect – voice quality in particular – if usage of FaceTime exceeded expectations.”

The move’s received a cautious welcome from consumer groups.

“The law is clear. AT&T cannot block FaceTime based on claims of potential congestion. There’s  nothing even remotely reasonable about that approach. AT&T simply can’t justify blocking an app that competes with its voice and texting services unless customers purchase a more expensive monthly plan that includes an unlimited amount of those very same services,” says Free Press policy director Matt Wood.

“AT&T’s course correction is a move in the right direction, but until the company makes FaceTime available to all of its customers it is still in violation of the FCC’s rules and the broader principles of net neutrality.”