Weeks after taking enormous heat from consumers, public interest groups, and the media (like us), AT&T is doing an about-face on its controversial decision to limit iOS 6's support for FaceTime over cellular to its new, pricier Mobile Share plans. That's great, but don't give AT&T an ounce of credit — the move is mysteriously taking eight to ten weeks to implement, and it's merely restoring functionality that should've been present from day one. It also would've never happened had organizations like Public Knowledge and Free Press not made it clear to AT&T that they'd pursue all legal avenues to get the block removed. "We got to a place that we think fixes the problem for AT&T's customers faster than would otherwise have happened, had we not indicated our willingness to file," Public Knowledge's John Bergmayer told us.
Carriers do not own the spectrum they occupy
More importantly, AT&T's sudden reversal exposes an enormous hole in the way that the FCC stewards the nation's airwaves. I mentioned in my January editorial — Unlimited data is dead, so let's fight a smarter fight — that spectrum belongs to the citizens; it's merely licensed to companies like AT&T, Verizon, and hundreds of others for the purpose of creating networks and services that are beneficial to the people living in it. That means that when a company purchases a license and doesn't use it to the fullest extent possible — when it arbitrarily restricts services, for instance — it's a violation of the spirit by which the spectrum was licensed in the first place. But in the course of normal business, the FCC doesn't regularly audit the utilization of this spectrum. We need to take private industry's word for it that it's using spectrum as efficiently as it can, that it's running out of spectrum, and that it's disabling access to services for a good reason.
Indeed, AT&T's firebrand head of external affairs, Jim Cicconi, posted a piece to the company's Public Policy Blog today that makes it crystal clear that it's AT&T setting the rules, not the FCC.
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. 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. And this is important for all our customers regardless of which smartphone they may use.
Apparently, we're supposed to applaud AT&T for its "cautious approach" — Cicconi even reminds us that "AT&T has by far more iPhones on [their] network than any other carrier," a fact that he's "proud" of. So proud, apparently, that AT&T needed to brush up against the outer bounds of the FCC's weak wireless net neutrality guidelines by disabling functionality that Apple was trying to deliver to its customers.
This is AT&T's world — the FCC is just living in it
What we should've seen, in fact, is a sternly-worded press release from the Federal Communications Commission telling us that the data provided by AT&T on network utilization didn't support the block, and that it was ordering the block removed. It couldn't, of course, because it doesn't have access to even a sliver of the data that AT&T does internally — and any attempt to obtain it would take months (if not years) of filings, proceedings, and legal maneuvers. This is AT&T's world — the FCC is just living in it.
It's fantastic that public pressure caused AT&T to fold here, but make no mistake: it folded as little as it could.
FaceTime remains blocked over 3G (or, as AT&T and other carriers call it, 4G), and there's no explanation for why flipping the switch will take two months or more. [Update: AT&T tells us that LTE devices that aren't on Mobile Share plans will, in fact, be able to use FaceTime on HSPA. That still leaves non-LTE devices in the dark, which is an even more arbitrary restriction.]
Bergmayer feels the pain. "If it turns out they don't make it available to truly everyone, we still plan to file a complaint. The violation is ongoing until the feature is made available to every plan, including unlimited plans," he says.
We'd take it a step further: make your network utilization data available to everyone, AT&T. It might be your network, but it's built on our spectrum.