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Net neuters seek FCC relief from AT&T's FaceTime fees

Free market at work or Big Phone extortion?

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A trio of public-interest groups plans to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission charging that AT&T's requirement that its subscribers move up to a higher-priced plan if they want to use Apple's FaceTime video conferencing over wireless broadband is in violation of the FCC's net-neutrality rules

"There's a ton wrong with AT&T's scheme, which involves blocking the video calling app over 3G and 4G networks unless customers pay for a more expensive voice-and-text plan," writes Free Press internet campaign director Josh Levy.

Public Knowledge attorney John Bergmayer agrees. "AT&T is trying to engage in exactly the kind of 'double-dipping' that the Open Internet rules were mean to prohibit, to get people to buy voice minutes and text plans they don't need," he writes, "and to discourage people from using apps it doesn't approve of."

Rounding out the net-neut defenders is the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. "AT&T's decision to block mobile FaceTime on many data plans is a direct contradiction of the Commission's Open Internet rules for mobile providers," said that group's policy council Sarah Morris in a group statement. "For those rules to actually protect consumers and allow them to choose the services they use, the Commission must act quickly in reviewing complaints before it."

Before iOS 6, FaceTime was limited to use over Wi-Fi – which, of course, was not a burden on AT&T's network. When introducing iOS 6 this June, however, Apple's iOS headman Scott Forstall announced that beginning with iOS 6, FaceTime would be available over 3G wireless connections.

Such a feature would need to be supported by carriers, and this summer AT&T let it be known that they would, indeed, permit FaceTime 3G usage – but only if you ponied up for one of their add-on Mobile Share data plans.

"AT&T will offer FaceTime over cellular as an added benefit of our new Mobile Share data plans, which were created to meet customers' growing data needs at a great value," an AT&T spokesman told NBC News.

To some, we assume, AT&T's decision is merely the market at work – if you want something, be prepared to spend more to get it. To others, it's "simple extortion", seeing as how AT&T subscribers already pay for their data plans – why should they pay more to consume bandwidth they've already paid for?

AT&T, of course, takes a dim view of such claims. "In another knee-jerk reaction, some groups have rushed to judgment and claimed that AT&T's plans will violate the FCC's net-neutrality rules," wrote AT&T's Chief Privacy Officer Bob Quinn when the Mobile Share controversy first erupted in August after AT&T announced its FaceTime intentions.

"Those arguments are wrong," he said.

Free Press, Public Knowledge, and the Open Technology Institute clearly disagree. To them, AT&T's Mobile Share requirement is cause to file a net-neutrality complaint with the FCC – hence Tuesday's announcement, which follows the Commission's rules that notification must be given 10 days before a formal complaint is filed.

If you're on the net-neuters' side, you can sign Free Press' petition, which includes the heartstring-tugging line, "This is bad for every AT&T customer, including the deaf, immigrant families and others with relatives overseas, who depend on mobile video apps to communicate with friends and family."

Alternatively, you could simply follow Free Press' Tumblr site, FaceTime FacePlant. ®

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