Just to be clear, the Hangouts video chat situation on AT&T is really messed up

Last night, I posted a report explaining all we knew about a bizarre block in Google's new Hangouts app for Android that prevents it from operating over cellular on AT&T — you need to be on Wi-Fi. On other carriers, cellular works just fine.

When this exact same thing happened last year with FaceTime, AT&T managed to cobble together a marginally cohesive explanation: since FaceTime is built-in, it's not subject to FCC rules regarding restrictions on app downloads, and therefore AT&T was free to disable the functionality out of "an overriding concern for the impact this expansion may have on our network and the overall customer experience."

That's shaky at best, obvious double-speak at worst. But this time around, even that explanation doesn't hold ground.

AT&T is quoting the same rule in explaining what's going on with Hangouts (though it doesn't mention Hangouts by name in its response). Furthermore, Hangouts works just fine over cellular on the iPhone, which is very clearly downloaded from the App Store. But the problems are twofold:

  • Hangouts isn't, in AT&T's parlance, "pre-loaded." There is no argument that users have had to download it from Google Play this week. It replaces Google Talk — which is built-in — but regardless, it's a new application that the user has downloaded. That immediately makes it eligible for protection by the FCC's existing net neutrality policies.
  • Even more importantly, the block is happening on phones that have nothing to do with AT&T. The behavior is reproducible on a Nexus 4, which — unless I missed something — has never been sold by AT&T, is not AT&T-branded, has never been advertised or promoted by AT&T, and has never had its firmware vetted or codeveloped by AT&T. That means that either Google is voluntarily disabling Hangouts when it detects that it's being used on AT&T, or AT&T is detecting Hangouts network traffic and actively blocking it. Both scenarios are absolutely terrifying.

It'd be one thing if AT&T had a blanket rule against over-the-top video chat traffic, but it is singling out Hangouts. You can download countless other video chat apps from the Play Store and they'll work just fine.

I'm going to openly predict that this blockade ends very quickly. The best case is that AT&T realizes it doesn't have a leg to stand on and flips the switch, but if it wants to dig its heels and play the long game, the FCC has a clear-cut ruling to make here — even clearer than the FaceTime debacle. (And with FaceTime, AT&T eventually relented.)