AT&T's outspoken senior vice president of regulatory affairs Bob Quinn is coming out with guns blazing on the outcry over the company's recently-announced restrictions on FaceTime over cellular, saying that interest group Public Knowledge and others have "rushed to judgment" on their possible infringement of the FCC's relatively mild Open Internet regulations that apply to mobile. In many ways, it's exactly the line we expected AT&T to take.
Quinn's post, a seven-paragraph missive that seems to talk down to AT&T's detractors in places, notes that "customers will continue to be able to use FaceTime over Wi-Fi irrespective of the data plan they choose," as if to say that AT&T could or should have some sort of control over what mobile apps its customers use over broadband networks that it doesn't even manage. The more interesting language, though, is where Quinn attempts to argue why the move doesn't violate FCC rules:
Our policies regarding FaceTime will be fully transparent to all consumers, and no one has argued to the contrary. There is no transparency issue here.
Nor is there a blocking issue. The FCC's net neutrality rules do not regulate the availability to customers of applications that are preloaded on phones. Indeed, the rules do not require that providers make available any preloaded apps. Rather, they address whether customers are able to download apps that compete with our voice or video telephony services. AT&T does not restrict customers from downloading any such lawful applications, and there are several video chat apps available in the various app stores serving particular operating systems. (I won't name any of them for fear that I will be accused by these same groups of discriminating in favor of those apps. But just go to your app store on your device and type "video chat.") Therefore, there is no net neutrality violation.
Quinn somehow argues that the rules only apply to downloaded apps — "the rules do not require that providers make available any preloaded apps," he notes — which seems to suggest that if Apple were to make an unrestricted, unblocked version of FaceTime available in the App Store, there's nothing AT&T could or would do about it. That could have broader implications going forward for every mobile platform, too: Google Talk on Android and any Skype integration coming to Windows Phone, for instance.
But at the end, Quinn admits what we all could've probably guessed: this is as much about AT&T's concerns that its "4G" network — which is extraordinarily fragile in places like downtown Chicago — will buckle under additional load:
We are broadening our customers' ability to use the preloaded version of FaceTime but limiting it in this manner to our newly developed AT&T Mobile Share data plans out of an overriding concern for the impact this expansion may have on our network and the overall customer experience.
Of course, limited data buckets were already designed with capacity management in mind, so that's not really a good answer. Quinn says that the company's new Mobile Share plans "were designed to make more data available to consumers" (emphasis his), but it's unclear what exactly that means, and he never ventures to explain it. There's no indication that AT&T is backing down from this — not that anyone expected it to — so we'll have to see how far Public Knowledge, Free Press, and others are going to take the fight.