Feature Article

November 08, 2012

AT&T Says You Can Have FaceTime without a Shared Data Plan

In the sometimes screwy world that is AT&T, when Apple introduced its new iPad that came complete with support for LTE and its new FaceTime over cellular capability, AT&T in a seemingly random act of violence against many subscribers (figuratively speaking), declared that only those among its subscribers that had or would move to shared data plans would actually be able to use FaceTime over cellular. Customers complained, and did so rather loudly - enough that the FCC got involved. AT&T didn't flinch then.

Now, with Apple having added the iPhone 5 with LTE support, the iPad mini coming down the road with same and the fourth generation iPad about to launch with LTE, AT&T suddenly finds itself in need of changing its mind on who can use cellular FaceTime. Sprint and Verizon may have also played a role in causing AT&T to rethink the error of its ways.

In any case, AT&T today decided to go ahead and reverse - actually "modify" may be a better word - that decision to block FaceTime calls over LTE data networks from customers who don't subscribe to one of AT&T's shared data plans. AT&T anticipates that it will take eight to 10 weeks to open up the FaceTime functionality over LTE to iPhones and iPads. That puts us beyond the holiday buying season, but the promise should be enough for anyone that might otherwise be deterred from buying an iPhone or iPad to go ahead and make the buy.

In a blog post that also appeared today, AT&T's Senior Executive Vice President for External and Legislative Affairs, Jim Cicconi, explained why the carrier is opening FaceTime up to customers on tiered data plans. But really, the explanation Cicconi provided rings hollow to us. Here's what Ciccone had to say:

"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 users."

AT&T simply wanted to move its subscribers to shared data plans. They are apparently quite profitable.

Now in fact it may also be true that shared data plans might offer AT&T a means to better "lighten the load" on the cellular networks, but to try and limit FaceTime access in order to force subscribers to switch was not the sort of move to delight consumers. We can only believe that it saw some recent Net Provider Scores that didn't look all that good. With Ralph de la Vega, AT&T's CEO of Mobility looking to deliver all sorts of new user services, it probably wouldn't do to suddenly find consumers lacking enthusiasm for recommending AT&T to their friends and relatives.

Even so, AT&T hasn't quite gone all in yet. The change only affects devices that connect to AT&T's 4G LTE network, not older 3G devices - that in and of itself is fine as we sincerely doubt the 3G networks have either the capacity or bandwidth to handle FaceTime - there is a good reason Apple did not support it over 3G - performance would have led to poor user experiences.

The real issue that does make a difference is that AT&T will only allow those who have either a tiered or shared data plan to play. If you happen to have a grandfathered-in unlimited data plan - the camp that we happen to fall into - you will still only be able to use FaceTime over Wi-Fi. Ok, we are not about to ditch our unlimited plan - FaceTime is nice, but isn't that nice. We do wonder how many of us there actually are with such plans (we don't have the number handy).

In any case, our plan is to hold out.

Edited by Jamie Epstein

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