Telecommunications Policy

Thank Goodness We Have Net Neutrality to Save Us From the Threat of People Paying to Video Chat Over Mobile Networks

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What does a net neutrality violation actually look like? When advocates of the policy, which restricts the ways that Internet Service Providers (ISP) can prioritize certain types of data over their networks, made their case, they struggled to come up with plausible real-world examples.

In the process of signing off on the rules, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was able to name just four potential violations of the policy from the last 10 years, two of which were serious stretches. The agency admitted that the regulations were "prophylactic" — meant to prevent neutrality violations from occuring in the future despite minimal historical evidence that any problem actually existed. This was one of the primary reasons why I was so skeptical of the rules. What sort of practices would it actually prevent? What harm would occur if the rules were not put in place?

Now we have a potential answer: video chatting over mobile networks! The devoted net neutrality backers at Public Knowledge are warning that when AT&T begins to allow iPhone users access to the video-calling application FaceTime, the company will be violating the FCC's net neutrality rules. The New York Times reports:

When Apple releases its next version of its mobile operating system iOS this fall, iPhone customers will have the option to place FaceTime video calls over the cellular network, whereas before they could do so only on Wi-Fi. On the AT&T network, however, that privilege will be available to customers only on a certain type of data plan, which has raised debate on whether or not the carrier is violating government rules.

AT&T said last week that using FaceTime over its network would be a feature for customers of its shared data plans, not customers who have the older unlimited or tiered data plans. Public Knowledge, a nonprofit group that focuses on Internet law, says that by prohibiting  its other customers from using the video-calling feature on the network, AT&T is violating net-neutrality rules by blocking a service that potentially competes with its own.

…AT&T says it has done nothing wrong, because FaceTime is still available over Wi-Fi.

Public Knowledge lawyer John Bergmayer tells the Times, "There is no technical reason why one data plan should be able to access FaceTime and another not." Even if that is true, there is also no good reason why such a service should not be available only to those who choose to purchase a particular plan that supports the service. 

Imagine the horror: Children video chatting with their grandparents, boyfriends and girlfriends staring wistfully into each others eyes, husbands and wives wrenched apart by great canyons of time and distance able to see their spouse's faces as they discuss the mundane details of bills and home repair options — all without the need to be stay in range of wi-fi connection, at least for those who purchase the right mobile data plan. This is the sort of truly ugly practice that net neutrality was intended to prevent. A civilization that allows a mobile ISP to limit use of a high-bandwidth video calling service to individuals who pay for certain data plans surely cannot stand for long. 

I chronicled the Obama administration's long and quixotic quest for net neutrality regulations in the March 2011 issue of Reason