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AT&T opens access to FaceTime video some

AT&T previously limited cellular access to the video chat feature to customers in its Mobile Share family data plan.

Apple Inc.

AT&T relented to public pressure and opened up access to the FaceTime video calling feature found on Apple's iOS devices.

The latest version of iOS allowed iPhones and iPads to FaceTime chat over the cellular network -- it previously could only run on Wi-Fi -- but AT&T had restricted access to the feature to customers in its capped Mobile Share data plan.

But AT&T said today that it would open cellular access to any AT&T customer on a tiered plan with a 4G LTE device, which means just the iPhone 5 and some iPads. The company said it expects to roll out the feature over the next eight to ten weeks.

Consumer advocates had criticized AT&T's decision to restrict the feature as bad for customers, particularly those with hearing problems that could greatly benefit from the ability to video chat anywhere a cellular connection is available. The company will also make cellular FaceTime available to deaf and hard of hearing customers who quality for special data and text-only plans. In addition, it was seen as an anti-competitive move, with AT&T blocking a service that it competes against.

Jim Cicconi, AT&T's top executive on legislative and regulatory affairs, posted the company's position in a blog today, explaining that the company didn't know what the impact of so many FaceTime users would be on the cellular network, prompting the decision to restrict access. Since AT&T has the most iPhones in the U.S., any impact on data traffic would have been felt the most on the company's network.

As most observers are aware, Apple's FaceTime application is currently enabled on AT&T's popular Mobile Share plan as well as on Wi-Fi, though not at this time on our other billing plans. This approach has raised questions and some concerns. We decided to take this cautious approach for important reasons. AT&T has by far more iPhones on our network than any other carrier. We're proud of this fact and the confidence our customers have in us. But it also means that when Apple rolls out new services or changes, as it did in iOS 6, it can have a much greater, and more immediate, impact on AT&T's network than is the case with carriers who have far fewer iPhone users.

In this instance, with the FaceTime app already preloaded on tens of millions of AT&T customers' iPhones, there was no way for our engineers to effectively model usage, and thus to assess network impact. It is for this reason that we took a more cautious approach toward the app. To do otherwise might have risked an adverse impact on the services our customers expect -- voice quality in particular -- if usage of FaceTime exceeded expectations. And this is important for all our customers regardless of which smartphone they may use.

In the meantime, we are announcing today that we will support FaceTime, not only on our Mobile Share plans, but also on all of our tiered data plans with an LTE device. We expect to roll out this functionality over the next 8-10 weeks. In addition, we are informing our deaf and hard of hearing customers that, as of October 26, we began rolling out several new billing plans designed to allow them to make use of FaceTime. This is part of our ongoing commitment to our customers with disabilities, and it's a commitment which is very important to us.

We will continue to gather and assess the network data on this issue over the next few months and anticipate that we will be able to expand the availability of FaceTime to our customers on other billing plans in the near future.

While AT&T is expanding access, it doesn't include everyone. The requirement of 4G LTE means that older iPhones won't be able to utilize FaceTime over the 3G cellular network, so the iPhone 4S or iPhone 4 are still out of luck. Also unable to use cellular FaceTime users are customers who have a grandfathered unlimited data plan.

Advocacy group Free Press applauded the decision, but noted the limitations.

"AT&T's course correction is a move in the right direction, but until the company makes FaceTime available to all of its customers it is still in violation of the FCC's rules and the broader principles of Net neutrality," said Free Press director Matt Wood.