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AT&T loosens FaceTime restrictions, allows some iPhone 5 and iPad users to video chat over LTE

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Apple AT&T Facetime cellular error (STOCK)
Apple AT&T Facetime cellular error (STOCK)

AT&T just announced that it is easing some of the restrictions it placed on the iPhone's FaceTime feature — now, iOS 6 users with an LTE-capable device will be able to use FaceTime over cellular, as long as they're using a tiered data plan. Specifically, compatible devices include the iPhone 5 as well as the third- and fourth-generation iPad and the iPad mini. Unfortunately, it seems that those with grandfathered data plans are out of luck.

Things haven't changed for all of the other iPhone users on AT&T's network — they'll still have to be on a mobile share plan to use FaceTime on a cellular network. Strangely enough, AT&T is saying that customers won't be able to use this feature for another eight to ten weeks, but there's no indication as to what's causing the delay.

AT&T's public policy blog has a few more details about the change — Senior VP Jim Cicconi writes that its initial FaceTime over cellular rollout was restricted to devices with mobile share plans so the company could assess the impact it would have on the company's network. Cicconi also said that AT&T anticipates being able to roll out FaceTime over cellular to more customers on other billing plans in the "near future." iPhone 4S owners might not be entirely out of luck, though we don't think FaceTime over cellular will be coming to those customers any time soon.

"We still think this is not a complete solution by any stretch."

Public interest groups Free Press and Public Knowledge have a different take on the situation — both groups just released PR saying that AT&T changed course after they threatened the company with a formal FCC complaint. Both groups say that they will still file a complaint unless AT&T works to bring FaceTime to all of its customers in a "timely manner." Public Knowledge Senior Staff Attorney John Bergmayer noted that the groups are holding off on their complaint to allow AT&T to implement the solution on its own — while it's not there yet, it seems that just the threat of legal action was enough to get AT&T moving.

Update: We just spoke with John Bergmayer, who told us that Public Knowledge was only willing to hold its formal FTC complaint on the condition that AT&T roll out FaceTime to its entire network. "Without that language," Bergmayer said, "we would not have agreeed to not file [with the FCC] eventually." He also said that, while AT&T was "entitled to, and should, manage its network to ensure call quality," he flatly disagreed that "blocking [features] by plan is what's called 'reasonable network management.'" As for the future, Bergmayer told us that Public Knowledge will be checking with AT&T shortly after FaceTime over LTE rolls out to find out more on its plans to bring Apple's video-calling service to all its customers.

Matt Wood, a policy director with Free Press, just spoke with us as well and had a similar perspective on the situation to his counterpart at Public Knowledge. "We're still watching now, we still think this is not a complete solution by any stretch," Wood said, "but we decided not to file a complaint for now because AT&T has unblocked FaceTime for more of its users." As for what's next, Wood said that "we're still watching very carefully and want to see them do what they said in their blog post." Until FaceTime is available for all, Public Knowledge plans to "keep putting the pressure on and making sure that the customers aren't being denied the ability to use these applications by the carrier in the middle."