Public interest groups warn AT&T over FaceTime and net neutrality

At issue is AT&T’s plans to block FaceTime unless Apple users sign up for a more expensive data plan. FaceTime is a video telephone application similar to Skype, allowing users to hold video conversations via the internet. The opportunity seen by AT&T is that what was a downloadable app has now become part of the latest iOS operating system and is an integral part of the new iPhone (and available over the cellular/mobile network); and AT&T now says that it will only allow the use of FaceTime if users buy a more expensive data plan.

The public interest groups claim this contravenes the FCC’s net neutrality rules. In the Netherlands, similar concerns that the country’s leading carrier was charging Skype users ultimately led to the Dutch net neutrality law. In the US, however, AT&T claims it is breaking no rules. It said, “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 any preloaded apps.” Killian Bell, writing in Cult of Mac commented at the time, AT&T “has decided to block the feature and charge you extra for it simply because it can.”

Free Press disagrees with AT&T, claiming it “is a clear violation of the FCC’s Open Internet rules.” It is particularly outrageous, added the organization’s policy director Matt Wood, “that AT&T is requiring this for iPad users, given that this device isn’t even capable of making voice calls.” That’s why today, announced Josh Levy yesterday, “Free Press joined with Public Knowledge and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute to notify AT&T of our intent to file a formal complaint against the company.”

The FCC rules require that complainants give ten days notice of their intention to file a formal complaint. This was done by letter yesterday. According to Reuters, “Both AT&T and the FCC declined to comment on the letter.” Levy, however, said “We will file our official complaint in the coming weeks.”

It is noticeable that neither of AT&T’s main rivals, Verizon and Sprint, are intending to charge more for FaceTime. Securosis, however, delivers a stinging rebuke to all of the carriers. Verizon is not that innocent it claims. “They might make a big deal over not restricting FaceTime, but they have to allow it (and Personal Hotspot) thanks to agreements they made with the US government for LTE spectrum. It’s only a feature because they were forced.”

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