AT&T and FaceTime: What the Fuss is All About

by DMR2012 on August 29, 2012

Up through iOS5, Apple refused to extend FaceTime (its video chat) to LTE—although FaceTime has always been available over wireless fidelity (WiFi). Apple’s newest operating system, iOS6, will incorporate FaceTime over 3G LTE. Many Apple customers have waited for this day to come; if they were jailbreakers, they would know that Apple copied only what the jailbreaking community created a long time ago. 3G over FaceTime is no stranger to jailbreakers.

 

After being granted such a long-awaited decision, you would think that Apple customers would be ecstatic. Unfortunately, such an impression would be terribly misguided because you must consider that phone carriers play a role in the administration of FaceTime over 3G networks. AT&T is one of the phone carriers in partnership with the Apple Corporation and sells its iPhones in company stores (Verizon and Sprint are two others). In the same way that partnering companies cannot approve of jailbreaking and jailbroken smartphones, it seems that they should approve FaceTime over 3G without hesitation…right? This is where AT&T becomes a rebel in its own right.

 

AT&T will only allow mobile share data plan customers the privilege of having FaceTime over 3G LTE. This has outraged many AT&T customers who feel as though AT&T is denying them a privilege due to financial reasons. According to Antone Gonsalves in his article titled “AT&T To Limit iPhone’s FaceTime,” AT&T will grant this privilege “only through its premium data plan.” In response, customers claim that AT&T’s decision challenges the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) No Blocking rule. What is the “No Blocking” rule?

 

The “No Blocking” rule, according to Public Knowledge Senior Staff Attorney John Bergmayer, is a law enforced by the FCC that requires companies to compete honestly with opposing services. The No Blocking rule prohibits discriminatory practices; this means that a company cannot block customers for having a similar service by other means because of its own sales. AT&T claims that it does not violate the No Blocking rule because the FCC forbids discrimination of only preloaded apps, not downloadable ones. FaceTime over 3G, thus, is a downloadable application that did not come with the current iPhones and their capabilities. This means that, while AT&T must honor FaceTime over WiFi, it is in no way obligated to offer FaceTime over 3G. Not only does the company claim that the FCC distinguishes between which apps it enforces the rule upon, the company also claims that it does not offer a video chat service—thus, AT&T is not competing directly with the likes of Skype, for example (a company that offers video chat services for free).

 

Public Knowledge attorney Bergmayer may not disagree with AT&T’s claims about competing in its video chat service, but he does disagree with the company’s false dichotomy of preloaded and downloadable apps. Bergmayer claims that the company is dishonest regarding its claims of preloaded and downloadable apps. He believes the FCC does not distinguish regarding these and says that any application, whether preloaded or downloadable, must compete with its counterparts on a fair basis without discrimination. That is, AT&T must allow customers to enjoy these other services without hindering its customers.

 

With regards to the FCC distinction between apps, I cannot say. I cannot agree or disagree with either Bergmayer or AT&T. What I can say, however, is that I understand AT&T’s policy and agree with the company when it says that it is not blocking the service because it does not have a video chat service it offers AT&T customers. It is true—customers of AT&T do not pay for a video chat service each month. Therefore, the “no blocking” rule is not violated by AT&T’s policy.

 

What is the real reason behind AT&T’s stance? Bergmayer says that:

 

“AT&T just wants FaceTime fans to pay more. At the same time, the carrier wants to stifle the use of video conferencing apps like FaceTime, Skype and OoVoo, because they compete with other AT&T services.” (http://www.readwriteweb.com/mobile/2012/08/att-to-limit-iphones-facetime-challenges-fccs-no-blocking-rule.php).

 

Skype, FaceTime, and ooVoo do compete with other AT&T services. What about their attempts to frustrate access to these services is unusual? There are numerous phone carriers that do this on a daily basis. US Cellular, my phone carrier, refused to sell the iPhone in its stores because it was too expensive out-of-pocket. I spoke with a US Cellular representative when I went home some time ago, and she told me that the company decided against the iPhone due to a high-risk transaction: if the company sold the iPhone, Apple would get a percentage of the sales; then, Apple would get a sum from the company just to sell the phone in its stores. This means that Apple would get twice the amount of money that US Cellular would receive. Last but not least, the transaction would be risky for US Cellular because they have to make a profit off the sales as well. If they did not, then they would take the fall for a bad investment—although Apple would get its money and leave the partnership unscathed. If US Cellular rejected the iPhone sale, what about AT&T? The company is overseeing its financial welfare. If you think they are alone, I can assure you that Sprint and Verizon are guilty of the same thing.

 

There are two other points worth noting about the FaceTime over 3G dispute with AT&T. First, FaceTime usage on current 3G networks will only exacerbate your monthly data plan, not help it according to SmartMoney.com. Frost and Sullivan provide a chart at the SmartMoney link that helps customers see the expensive nature of FaceTime video chat. For just 300mb of data per month, you will receive no more than 400 minutes of 3G time with AT&T. Depending on your access to a WiFi network, you may use those 400 minutes quickly or slowly. And the pace with which you consume these minutes depends upon not only a WiFi network, but the amount of time you spend on calls and video chat—or whether or not the majority of your minutes are consumed on things like email, music, and leisure time on the Internet. If you want a 5GB or 10GB plan, you will pay anywhere from $50-$100 extra for the data—in addition to your regular phone minutes for voicemail, texting, and calls.

 

Secondly, iPhone users can access FaceTime by way of a WiFi connection. FaceTime is still accessible to iPhone customers, but they cannot activate it over a 3G or 4G network. There is no wrongdoing here; if AT&T withheld FaceTime altogether (by not allowing any of its customers to use it), that would be a reason worth complaining about. In this case however, AT&T allows customers of mobile share data plans only to use the service. While some iPhone customers consider 3G LTE to be the “wave of the future,” many iPhone users are not interested in 3G or 4G and do not consider it to be necessary or vital for a monthly phone plan (see Business Insider). When surveyed about the iPhone 5’s 4G capability, many said that WiFi supplies their needs; 3G or 4G connectivity may supply faster speeds for Internet connection, but those speeds are not necessary for daily functions such as checking email, posting on Facebook, and so on. The consumer majority appreciates WiFi and does not see 3G or 4G as a luxury item over which to fight. This is why AT&T can state their case without problems or worries.

 

 

If there is no case of “blocking” and FaceTime is available over a WiFi connection, what is the rationale behind customer complaint? Gonsalves writes:

 

“AT&T is not treating FaceTime any differently than competing apps. Rather, the debate reflects the passion of Apple’s fan base. Nevertheless, the FCC will need to clarify the no-blocking rule, or carriers will be free to interpret it anyway they wish” (Gonsalves, “AT&T To Limit iPhone’s FaceTime- Challenges FCC’s ‘No Blocking’ Rule”).

 

The underlined phrase in the above statement says it all: AT&T is innocent of its charges, and Apple fans are the ones complaining about the measure because it denies them a convenience they want to have—just like every other non-AT&T customer. At the same time, however, AT&T must look out for its financial interests. After all, it is a company that needs to make money in order to stay ahead of other American phone carriers.

 

So, what are we to make of the recent charges against AT&T? The charges, in my estimation, are nothing more than complaints due to the desire of iPhone users who cannot stomach living without the convenience of FaceTime over 3G. The contrast, however, is that FaceTime over 3G is a luxury, something that iPhone customers do not need. Since it is a luxury, AT&T has the right to offer its luxury privileges to those who pay luxury money. Case closed.

 

If you want to experience FaceTime over 3G, you can always jailbreak your iPhone 3GS and download a jailbreak tweak known as “3G Unrestrictor.” It manipulates your iPhone into assuming you are on WiFi–even when you are using your 3G cellular network.

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