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AT&T to relax restrictions on FaceTime, video chat

New contractual shenanigans to arrive in June?

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AT&T Wireless plans to lift some of its restrictions on the use of mobile video chat apps by the end of this year, according to a statement the carrier released on Monday.

AT&T started limiting its customers' access to bandwidth-heavy chat apps in 2012, when Apple first enabled the use of its FaceTime video chat over mobile networks instead of just on Wi-Fi, as had been the case previously.

Even before the final version of iOS 6 shipped, early adopters began seeing messages warning them that they might need to contact AT&T to activate the feature on its network.

Sure enough, AT&T eventually announced that only customers on its so-called tiered data plans, which limit the amount of data available based on how much the customer pays, would be able to use FaceTime over its mobile network. Customers on older, "unlimited" data plans would be shut out.

That move prompted much outrage among the fanboi community, including online petitions and even a formal complaint filed with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – all to no avail.

But AT&T may now be ready to relax some of its restrictions, according to a memo received by The Verge on Monday. In fact, if all goes according to schedule, customers with unlimited data service will be able to use FaceTime and other video chat apps in just a few weeks' time:

For video chat apps that come pre-loaded on devices, we currently give all OS and device makers the ability for those apps to work over cellular for our customers who are on Mobile Share or Tiered plans. Apple, Samsung and BlackBerry have chosen to enable this for their pre-loaded video chat apps. And by mid-June, we’ll have enabled those apps over cellular for our unlimited plan customers who have LTE devices from those three manufacturers.

AT&T goes on to explain that even more devices will be able to use FaceTime and similar apps before long, but that this is going to take more work on AT&T's part:

Throughout the second half of this year, we plan to enable pre-loaded video chat apps over cellular for all our customers, regardless of data plan or device; that work is expected to be complete by year end.

We're not exactly sure what this "work" entails, but we're willing to bet it has less to do with technical jiggery-pokery on AT&T's mobile network than it does with crafting the right contract language to allow AT&T to bill customers in ways it deems appropriate.

There's still more, though, and this is the part that's harder to understand. Curiously, customers eager to try out Google's revamped Hangouts app, which debuted at the I/O conference last week, were also told that they needed to be on a Wi-Fi network to connect. Here's AT&T's reasoning for that:

Today, all of our customers can use any mobile video chat app that they download from the Internet, such as Skype.

Apparently, AT&T makes a distinction between chat apps that come preloaded on devices – such as FaceTime – and those that you download from app stores, as you do with Skype on most devices. For example, when you install the Hangouts app for iOS from the iTunes Store, you're free to use it on AT&T's mobile network as much as you like.

And yet, although Hangouts for Android is an official update from Google and it replaces the earlier Google Talk app, no devices have shipped with it yet. The only way to get the new Hangouts is to download it from the internet. So why is AT&T still blocking it from its mobile data network for Android devices, but not iOS ones?

Even ignoring all of that, why should AT&T restrict the use of the preinstalled versions of an app but allow the same app when customers download it themselves, when presumably both versions of the app consume the same amount of bandwidth? Something's afoot here.

When The Reg reached out to AT&T for clarification of its statement, we received only the same statement in reply, verbatim – so it looks like we'll have to wait until mid-June to find out how all of this pans out. ®

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