AT&T said today that it will allow any wireless customer with a tiered-data plan to use Apple's FaceTime videoconferencing app over AT&T's cellular network.
This is yet another change to AT&T's policy for this app, which when it was first introduced on the iPhone 4 was restricted to Wi-Fi networks only. In Apple's iOS 6 release of software, all FaceTime enabled iPhones were then capable of operating the app over a cellular network. Initially, AT&T still restricted usage to Wi-Fi.
In August, AT&T started to open the app to its cellular network. And it said FaceTime could be used on its cellular network if customers subscribed to the carrier's new Mobile Share billing plan. While consumers were happy that AT&T had opened the app to its network, many were outraged it was restricted to customers using AT&T's new and potentially more expensive tiered-billing offers. The Federal Communications Commission said it would review complaints on the issue.
Succumbing to public pressure, AT&T once again revised its policy. In November it opened the app to subscribers with any tiered-data plan so long as the device operated over AT&T's 4G LTE network. This meant the iPhone 5 and certain iPads.
Jim Cicconi, AT&T's top executive on legislative and regulatory affairs, argued at the time in a blog post for AT&T that the company is only trying to protect its network. He said AT&T has more iPhone users than any other carrier, and the company has been concerned that its network could be overwhelmed by allowing anyone to use FaceTime over the cellular network before it's been tested.
"In this instance, 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," Cicconi explained in a blog post last year. "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."
In a blog post on Wednesday to discuss the most recent policy switch, AT&T Senior Vice President Mark Collins suggested that AT&T had always intended to open the service to more customers on its network.
"When FaceTime over Cellular launched in September 2012, we explained that we wanted to roll it out gradually to ensure the service had minimal impact on the mobile experience for all of our customers," he said in the blog.
But the reality is that the FaceTime app is still not available to all AT&T customers. The company still restricts subscribers with unlimited-data plans from using FaceTime over the cellular network. For this reason, consumer advocates say they're still not satisfied. Free Press, which filed a complaint with the FCC in September about AT&T's restrictive policy, said AT&T has taken a step in the right direction. But it still hasn't gone far enough.
"As we've made clear all along, the company has no right to block the application in the first place," Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood said in a statement. "Until AT&T makes FaceTime available to all of its customers, it is still in violation of the law and the broader principles of Net Neutrality. We remain ready to bring our complaint unless AT&T finishes the job and stops blocking this application altogether."