Talking to AT&T

I have no idea how many of my BLog readers will care about this, but I thought it was interesting, so…

You may or may not know that with the release of iOS 6, Apple enabled FaceTime calls over cellular. Previously, FaceTime calls were restricted to wifi only.

When Apple announced this capability a few months back, people wondered if the carriers — AT&T, Sprint, Verizon — would allow it. After all, FaceTime uses a lot of data and the carriers are in the business of making money selling data, sure, but they’re also in the business of keeping their networks from collapsing.

Well, AT&T soon announced that the only way it would permit FaceTime over cellular would be if you switched to a Mobile Share Plan. Details here.

People were upset. Many people didn’t want to have to switch plans just to use a function on their phones. And I don’t blame them. I’m one of them.

Now, I’m in something of a special situation. I still have an unlimited data plan with AT&T, grandfathered in from when I bought my original iPhone five years ago. AT&T really hates people like me because we can use as much data as we want for one flat fee. A while back, AT&T enabled tethering on the iPhone, but people like me had to switch to a limited plan to use it. (I obviously chose to forego tethering.) And now, to use FaceTime, we would have to switch to a limited plan designed to be shared with other users.

Well, this annoyed me. I’m paying for the data, right? AT&T shouldn’t be able to say “You only get to use the data this way with one plan, and this way with another.” The ones and zeroes are the same whether I’m FaceTiming or reading e-mail. There’s just more of them in the former case. But I’m paying for them, so I should get to decide how I use them.

So, I figured what the heck and I filed a complaint with the FCC, figuring it would go into a pile with a bunch of others and I’d never hear anything.

Then, the other day, I got a phone call from AT&T. From a woman in the Office of the President. Apparently, the FCC had sent my complain over to AT&T.

Now, I don’t want to call her out or possibly get her in trouble, so I won’t use her name here. But I thought our conversation might be interesting to anyone who cares about this particular issue.

She started by basically repeating what I’d stated in the complaint: That I would have to switch plans to use FaceTime over cellular. She admitted that, based on my complaint, I seemed to understand the issue and that she didn’t really have anything to add. I was a little confused as to why she was calling, since she basically just repeated what I’d submitted. She asked if she’d answered my questions and then we both laughed at that. “You’re just telling me what I already know,” I told her.

Since she seemed receptive, I figured I would go into a little more detail. Honestly, I didn’t know the FCC would forward my complaint to AT&T. Had I known, I probably would have worded it differently.

I started off by explaining that I was sympathetic to AT&T’s fears regarding unleashing FaceTime on people with unlimited plans (“People like me must be a nightmare to you guys,” I said.), but that this wasn’t an ideal solution. I told her that I personally don’t abuse the unlimited plan (I probably use a gig most months, two on a really crazy month where I’m traveling a lot) and that I shouldn’t be punished because of those who do.

I explained that a Mobile Share plan was useless to me — I have one iPhone and my iPad doesn’t have cellular built-in. She told me that I could use the Mobile Share plan even with only one device. Which is true. I could change, but…I just don’t want to. I like my plan. I probably overpay, but that’s OK because the peace of mind it affords me is invaluable. I don’t have to worry that if one day I’m stuck at the airport without decent wifi and bored out of my skull that streaming a movie or downloading a game is going to rack up obscene data fees.

Since I was caught off-guard by the call, I didn’t have figures at hand to discuss, but since then I’ve done the research. Here are my options, currently, from AT&T:

  1. I can switch to a 5GB Individual Data Plan. Which is pointless because it wouldn’t allow me to do FaceTime anyway, so I didn’t even price it out.
  2. I can switch to a 6GB Mobile Share Plan, which would allow me to do FaceTime. This would cost me $110 per month.
  3. I can keep my current, unlimited plan, which costs me… the exact, same $110. Switching to the mobile share plan would cost me the same amount of money, but give me less data. The tradeoff is being able to use FaceTime.

So, AT&T is forcing me to choose between data and FaceTime. But FaceTime is data. I shouldn’t have to change my plan in order to use the exact same networking capacity and the exact same data that my phone currently uses.

I explained that when AT&T decided to force unlimited customers onto new, limited plans in order to tether their iPhones, I grumbled, but I didn’t file a complaint because I, personally, can see that there’s a difference between 1) using my phone and 2) using my phone to funnel the internet to my laptop. Don’t get me wrong: it would be nice if AT&T let me tether my phone on my current plan, but I can understand why they don’t.

But I just don’t see a difference between using my phone to e-mail my brother…and using my phone to FaceTime him. I’m just using my phone in both cases. (Again, FaceTime uses more data than e-mail, but I’m paying for that data.)

At some point, spitballing, I mentioned that I would be willing to pay 5-10 bucks more a month to keep my plan and have FaceTime at the same time. I wouldn’t be happy about it and I would grumble, but I wouldn’t go to the FCC about it. I recognize the realities of data cost and network protection.

This seemed to interest her greatly, but then I realized something: AT&T has announced that those on unlimited plans using more than 5GB per month would have their speeds throttled.

“You guys already have a system in place to keep people like me from damaging your network and abusing the unlimited plan,” I told her. “You’re already throttling us over 5 gigs. If you gave me FaceTime for free on my unlimited plan and I decided to screw you by talking to everyone I know all day long on FaceTime, you would throttle me at 5 gigs and I would have a lousy FaceTime experience and I would stop doing it.”

(I also mentioned that while I might be willing — grudgingly — to pay an extra $5-10 for FaceTime over cellular, I obviously couldn’t speak for anyone else on the unlimited plan. “I imagine you’d get just as many complaints about that,” I said.)

Anyway, the issue clearly wasn’t resolved over the phone. But she did listen to everything I had to say and took careful notes (pausing me several times to get me to repeat something so she could get it down). I was told that my voice would be heard and that everything I had said would go in her report to upper management. She also told me that the FaceTime issue was an ongoing discussion at AT&T and was actively being debated.

What does all this mean? Hell if I know. I’m always encouraged when a ginormous corporation bothers to respond to a customer complaint, even though I know most times — like the old adage about praying to God — the answer is “No.” But I definitely got the feeling that the outcry about FaceTime over cellular had been heard and was being taken seriously at AT&T. What they’ll end up doing about it — if anything — is as much your guess as mine.

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