FCC working group criticizes, defends AT&T restriction of FaceTime app

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AT&T's decision to restrict the use of Apple's FaceTime video-calling application over its cellular data network to customers subscribed to a particular pricing plan "sets a precedent that could have very negative consequences for the vibrant market for mobile applications," according to a case study (.pdf) from the Federal Communications Commission's Open Internet Advisory Committee Mobile Broadband Working Group.

In the case study, the FCC group explored how AT&T in August 2012 restricted the use of Apple's FaceTime app to certain pricing plans, while other providers, such as Sprint and Verizon, allowed FaceTime to operate over their cellular data networks for users of all billing plans. Some advocates and press denounced AT&T's decision at the time, asserting that AT&T violated the FCC's Open Internet Order and blocking an app competing with its own voice or video telephony services.

From the perspective of app developers, the case study found that AT&T did not choose the "optimal approach" by blocking access to the FaceTime app for customers on certain data plans and that by singling out one popular application they "opened the door" for carriers to block lawful use of applications, require customers to upgrade to potentially costlier, limited plans, and justify their actions by claiming to be engaged in reasonable network-management practices. 

"Generally, the working-group members agreed that blocking applications runs the risk of discouraging innovation, but that carriers also need effective ways to manage the limited resources in cellular networks," the case study says.

From the perspective of carriers, the case study found that AT&T has "good reasons" to be concerned about the potential for FaceTime to cause a focused, or localized, overload condition in its network. And, AT&T's approach of enabling FaceTime on Wi-Fi and on cellular for shared data plan subscribers is a "reasonable way" of managing the risk of network congestion. 

"AT&T's approach reduces the probability of a focused overload of its network due to FaceTime usage," states the case study. "By requiring a usage-based plan to access FaceTime over the cellular network, AT&T's approach both encourages use of the FaceTime service in a manner that is less likely to adversely impact the experience of other users on the network, and manages the number of subscribers that are likely to use such a bandwidth-intensive application."

The FCC working group said it is reasonable to conclude that AT&T, with the largest number of iPhone users and largest fraction of their subscribers as iPhone users, would have particular concerns about the load that the Facetime application would put on their network, including the potential to significantly degrade the available bandwidth for all other applications. 

In its conclusion, the case study highlights the need for future cellular networking equipment and management systems to offer "greater flexibility in managing the fine-grain sharing of limited network resources," which would make it "easier for carriers to limit the impact new applications have on the performance experienced by other users using application-neutral techniques."

For more:
- read the case study (.pdf)

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