updated 03:00 am EDT, Thu July 19, 2012
AT&T could face net neutrality charges for 3G FaceTime fees
In the wake of the discovery of a dialog box implying AT&T will charge for FaceTime over 3G above and beyond existing wireless fees, Sprint has gone on record opposing the move. Sprint remains "committed to our unlimited data, and that means not charging for data consumption based on the application." When queried earlier this week, AT&T CEO Randall L. Stephenson said that it was "too early" to address FaceTime fees, and AT&T was working closely with Apple on the developer build of iOS 6. Verizon's statement was even more terse, saying only that "the timing of any pricing conversations related to future versions of iOS is premature."
Both Verizon and AT&T have recently introduced controversial data-sharing plans. Both companies state that the intention is to simplify and possibly reduce the cost of smartphone billing -- but with both carriers, most users will see an increase in costs and a decrease in shareable data.
Testing performed by MacNN showed a data usage rate of 6.1 megabytes per minute with a five-minute Wi-Fi connection call throttled at the router to simulate a 3G connection in a well-provisioned area. Assuming the lowest Verizon shared data plan tier with 1GB per month for $50 per month and $40 per smartphone sharing the data, users on the plan performing a 3G FaceTime call with each other for five minutes total per day would theoretically exceed their allotments in 16 days.
As users approach data caps, speed is generally throttled downwards. FaceTime technology changes call bitrate on-the-fly, adjusting to either congested network traffic, or provider throttling, so only persistent users would likely exceed limits with FaceTime.
AT&T, should it choose to charge extra for FaceTime, potentially stands in violation of November's new net neutrality rules which the company helped craft. The net neutrality rules prevent ISPs from blocking unwanted services, and require them to disclose how they handle network congestion. Mobile carriers are prohibited from interfering with non-carrier communication apps, such as iMessage or Skype that compete with the wireless provider's offerings.
"The protections we have today for wireless Internet access are woefully inadequate, but this kind of double-charging is one of the few things they do prohibit," said Matt Wood, the policy director for Free Press,an advocacy group that opposes the rate hike. "If carriers like AT&T can throw up tollbooths for applications on top of their already outrageous charges for data, then innovation and competition in the wireless market will be stopped dead in its tracks."
MacNN spoke with the FCC about this issue, and an official at the commission said that the agency is "monitoring any and all developments in this matter involving AT&T and a competing communications protocol. If events warrant, we will make a further statement."