This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2012 issue of Next Gen Mobility Magazine.
AT&T last month announced it would enable FaceTime over cellular at no extra charge for iOS 6 customers with an LTE (News - Alert) device on any tiered plan, and that it would continue to support the application for customers with any AT&T Mobile Share plan as well as FaceTime over Wi-Fi. The new capability is expected to be available by early January at the latest, according to AT&T.
The move is a change of direction for AT&T, which in August announced plans to block the FaceTime (News - Alert) app over its network for all customers not on its Mobile Share data plan. Since then, the company has been in battle with Free Press, New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, and Public Knowledge (News - Alert). The consumer advocacy groups argued that the restriction violates the FCC's net-neutrality rules.
Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, last month blogged about the wireless carrier’s thinking on its initial position: “As most observers are aware, Apple’s (News - Alert) FaceTime application is currently enabled on AT&T’s popular Mobile Share plan as well as on Wi-Fi, though not at this time on our other billing plans. This approach has raised questions and some concerns. We decided to take this cautious approach for important reasons. AT&T has by far more iPhones on our network than any other carrier. We’re proud of this fact and the confidence our customers have in us. But it also means that when Apple rolls out new services or changes, as it did in iOS 6, it can have a much greater, and more immediate, impact on AT&T’s network than is the case with carriers who have far fewer iPhone (News - Alert) users.”
The FaceTime app came preloaded on tens of millions of AT&T customers’ iPhones, Cicconi added that “as a result there was no way for our engineers to effectively model usage, and thus to assess network impact.” In expressing this point, Cicconi noted that impacts could have negative repercussions for other smartphone users on the AT&T network had it not approached the issue with caution.
The Nov. 8 blog indicated AT&T would roll out the functionality “over the next 8 to 10 weeks”.
Free Press and Public Knowledge are waiting with baited breath and, according to a November post by The Hill, have said they will file a formal complaint with the FCC if AT&T fails to lift the restriction in a timely manner.
"The law is clear," says Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood. "AT&T cannot block FaceTime based on claims of potential congestion. There’s nothing even remotely reasonable about that approach. AT&T simply can’t justify blocking an app that competes with its voice and texting services unless customers purchase a more expensive monthly plan that includes an unlimited amount of those very same services. AT&T's course correction is a move in the right direction, but until the company makes FaceTime available to all of its customers it is still in violation of the FCC's rules and the broader principles of Net Neutrality."
FaceTime is a threat to wireless service providers like AT&T because it makes voice an over-the-top service, notes Niclas Melin, tactical marketing manager of business unit support solutions at Ericsson, one of the largest network infrastructure suppliers to the wireless carriers. But there are things the carriers can do to combat the OTT threat, he says.
The iPhone is really putting new capabilities on the market, fueling the need for customer experience, says Melin, who indicates that the wireless service providers can carve out an important role in delivering that experience. The iPhone 5 and iOS 6 introduce additional data-rich features including maps that will include photos and directions, FaceTime that will now work on cellular networks, shared photo streams and other applications. So wireless service providers can offer connectivity that addresses quality of service requirements for particular applications.
He adds that because many people today have laptops, one or more tablets, and wireless phones, a dedicated subscription for each device no longer makes sense. Shared data plans are becoming popular, he notes, but people (in most cases parents) want control over how much each device consumes so that the kids don’t use it all and so that families can control their wireless costs. Service providers have not yet launched this kind of service, he says, but this is the next kind of service we will see.
Wireless service providers in Asia already have come out with special packages that target lower income users and/or folks that want to use particular bandwidth-loving applications for a limited time, but with the ability to add to the plan later if needed. Melin says we can also expect to see more of these kinds of services in the not-too-distant future.
High-definition voice can also help wireless operators appeal to customers as new OTT capabilities become available, he adds.
“HD voice will help service providers combat the over-the-top threat of FaceTime in general,” he says.
Offering HD voice can also enable a wireless service provider to increase usage on its network because the high-fidelity of this kind offer makes it possible for subscribers to make and be able to hear calls even in noisy environments, like on the subway, adds Melin. All of that may help explain why at least 45 operators (two of them with LTE networks) already have HD-voice capable networks in place, he says.
Edited by Brooke Neuman