The Controversy Over AT&T and FaceTime

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eHow Tech Blog

There was a ton of news in the tech world last week, not the least of which was the resolution of the Apple v. Samsung trial. But one huge story you might not have seen – overshadowed by Samsung and Apple — was that AT&T’s new Mobile Share bucket data plans are now available for consumers. On the surface, that sounds kinda boring, but don’t be deceived: This news is surprisingly compelling and garnered a ton of backlash from the tech community.

The plans themselves are great, particularly for consumers who want to share a common bucket of data among multiple family members or tech devices. But they became the center of controversy when consumer watchdog groups began to bite back at AT&T’s decision to only offer FaceTime over 3G for customers who sign up for the new plans. Anyone on older plans can’t access the feature.

I’ll dig into who is mad, and how AT&T responded shortly, but first, I want to discuss why this is actually a good thing. First, Verizon Wireless introduced its new data plans recently, but, instead of providing choice, is forcing anyone who wants to upgrade with a subsidy to sign up for these plans. It’s an entirely legal move. AT&T, for its part, left its consumers with a choice. You can still take advantage of the individual data plans. I like choice. Ultimately, it’s good for the consumer.

However, two advocacy groups — Free Press and Public Knowledge — quickly found error in AT&T’s ways. The two groups are arguing that AT&T is violating the Federal Communication Commission’s net neutrality and open internet rules. They could be right, but it depends on how you look at it. See, net neutrality rules are supposed to allow consumers to do whatever they want with their data. It specifically applies to cable networks so that, Joe Consumer, for example, can still stream Netflix even if Time Warner doesn’t want him to. In the mobile space, the Free Press and Public Knowledge think that AT&T is unfairly blocking consumers from doing what they want with the data they pay for.

“This is a clear violation of Net Neutrality and of your own Open Internet rules,” the Free Press said in a letter to the FCC. “AT&T knows that if it can get the FCC to condone this kind of Net Neutrality violation, then they can get away with just about anything.”

I don’t think AT&T is violating the rules, however, because it’s providing a choice to consumers. Anyone can switch to Mobile Share data if they want to, but there are clearly some disturbed subscribers, probably those with grandfathered unlimited plans, that don’t want to switch.

Here’s why AT&T did it though: Its new Mobile Share data plans are priced in a way that it can still maintain network quality despite the hit that it might take on its 3G network when people begin to place FaceTime calls over it.

“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,” AT&T’s senior vice president, federal regulatory and chief privacy officer Bob Quinn said in response to the accusations from the Free Press and Public Knowledge.

Ultimately, AT&T needs to make sure that its customers are getting the best data experience possible, and that’s why it’s trying to incentivize customers over to its Mobile Share plans with FaceTime over 3G. It’s really not the end of the world, either. Anyone on the older plans can still use a number of FaceTime competitors, such as Google+ Hangouts, Tango or Skype.

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