"AT&T’s decision to block FaceTime unless a customer pays for voice and text minutes she doesn’t need is a clear violation of the FCC’s Open Internet rules,” said Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press, in a statement. "It’s particularly outrageous that AT&T is requiring this for iPad users, given that this device isn’t even capable of making voice calls."
With the roll-out of Apple's latest iOS 6 mobile operating system, people can now use the video chat app FaceTime via their mobile networks. Before, people could only use FaceTime to make voice calls if they were hooked up to a Wi-Fi connection.
AT&T had announced earlier this summer that it would allow customers to use FaceTime over its mobile network, but only if they signed up their MobileShare data plan. The wireless company has stressed that customers will still be able to use the app over a Wi-Fi connection regardless of their data plan.
AT&T has said that it's limiting the app's availability over its cellular network to only Mobile Share customers because the data plan was designed specifically to make more data available to subscribers without affecting the quality of its network. FaceTime is a data-heavy app and soaks up a lot of bandwidth on a mobile carrier's network.
Bob Quinn, senior vice president for federal regulatory matters at AT&T, argued in a blog post published this August that advocacy groups "have rushed to judgment" by claiming that the company's FaceTime policies violate net-neutrality rules. Quinn said AT&T is being transparent about its FaceTime policies and its plans will not block subscribers' access to the video chat application.
But he also noted that net-neutrality rules do not require mobile providers to make any pre-loaded apps available. Still, Quinn said AT&T does not have a rival pre-loaded voice chat app that competes with FaceTime nor does it prevent customers from downloading other video chat apps available in app stores.
The three public interest groups don't buy this argument.
Free Press has claimed that AT&T is making people sign up for a more expensive data plan with extra voice minutes and texts because FaceTime is a threat to their traditional voice services and bottom line. Wood has argued that AT&T's FaceTime plans could be "incredibly harmful" to a range of customers, including "the deaf, immigrant families and others with relatives overseas, who depend on mobile video apps to communicate with friends and family."
A spokesman for AT&T was not immediately available for comment.
—This post was updated at 2:35 p.m.